Government Digital Service Podcast
Government Digital Service Podcast #24:Celebrating Black Excellence in Tech

Government Digital Service Podcast #24:Celebrating Black Excellence in Tech

October 27, 2020

Vanessa Schneider:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Vanessa Schneider and I'm Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Like previous episodes, this one will also be recorded via Hangouts as we're all working remotely now. 

 

Today's podcast topic is Black Excellence in Tech as part of the GDS celebrations to commemorate Black History Month. The GDS Black Asian Minority Ethnic Staff Network at GDS have planned a calendar of events for the third year running. This year, many of the events are themed around Black excellence. To learn more about this, particularly in the tech sector, I'm joined by 3 guests: Samantha Bryant, Matthew Card and Chuck Iwuagwu. Sam, could you please introduce yourself to our listeners? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Hi, everybody. I am Samantha Bryant, or just Sam, and I am an Associate Delivery Manager on the GovTech Catalyst Team, and also one of the co-founders and co-chairs of the GDS BAME Network.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Awesome. Thank you, Sam. Chucks. Do you mind introducing yourself?

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Thanks Vanessa. Hi everyone. My name is Chucks Iwuagwu. I'm Head of Delivery in GOV.UK. And before becoming Head of Delivery on GOV.UK, I was Head of Delivery on the Verify programme.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great. Thank you, Chucks. Finally Matthew, could you please introduce yourself? 

 

Matt Card: 

Hi, I'm Matthew Card. I'm a Software Engineer, also a Senior Leadership Team Advisor at the BBC. I also run a motivational platform called Release D Reality, and I've started a Black tech network group as well. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Fantastic. Thank you, Matthew. So from what it sounds like, you all carry out important roles in digital, data and technology areas of your organisations. Would you mind sharing how you've gotten to the positions in your careers that you are in currently? Let's kick off with Sam, maybe. 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Ok, so I didn't come into the Civil Service thinking that I would land a tech role. And my initial idea, plan wasn't to be in the Civil Service for ages, but having found a tech role that is a non-techie tech role, I literally like found my niche, and that really encouraged me to stay in the Civil Service for longer. So I moved from the Cabinet Office to Government Digital Service, where I developed and progressed to being an Associate Delivery Manager. And I absolutely love the role. And also because I'm super passionate about D&I [diversity and inclusion], I formed the BAME Network here at GDS.

 

I would say the most important thing about my role was just like being surrounded by like-minded people. So at GDS, there are a lot of people who are in the tech organisation but not necessarily holding tech roles. And so before I became a DM, I was able to liaise with different managers in GDS, get an understanding for the work that they do, and it really aligns with my natural skill sets. And because I had a natural love for technology anyway, it, those two things aligned. So that's how I became an Associate Delivery Manager. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's really cool to hear. Do you mind sharing if you've had any experience outside of the public sector, outside of the Civil Service maybe?

 

Sam Bryant: 

I have, but not in a technical role. So I've worked for, I would call them like e-commerce tech companies like Groupon. And prior to that, I did some teaching, like all of my other jobs prior to this were very diverse and not necessarily aligned with what I do right now. But I also did a degree in English, which is really helpful when you're in a tech role, because communication is key, whether we're thinking about how we make our communications accessible, and when when we think about how we communicate with all stakeholders or how we communicate tech things to non-techies.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's really great to hear, yeah. It's, I think it's probably really important to hear also that you can do a variety of things before you come into the tech sector and that it's not, you know, a waste of time, perhaps. Chucks, do you mind perhaps sharing with us how you came to GDS and to the position that you are in now? 

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

I'm a bit like Samantha in, in the sense that I didn't set out in my career to work in, in tech and certainly to work in IT project management and in delivery leadership. This might surprise you, but my background is in biochemistry. I-I did a Master's in pharmacology and subsequent degrees in, in, in chemistry and, and making, manufacturing drugs, and got involved in clinical research. But it was actually my work in clinical research that led me to tech. I was involved in a clinical research project, and was particularly involved in writing specifications for the development of the application, the IT system, that we used in clinical research. And that was what sort of introduced me into business analysis and working with developers and those who write codes. I just made that transition from working in that sector into - I really enjoyed, you know, creating, you know, applications, IT systems. From then on, I moved to work initially for the health department in Scotland for NHS National Services Scotland. And then through that to several local authority. And, you know, ended up in GDS exactly about a year.

 

I-I became an agile enthusiast about 11 years ago, became a scrum master 10 years ago, and started working in agile scrum and have been working in agile delivery, scrum, kanban, different flavours of agile, for about 10 years. I was, just so people know, I'm an independent consultant, and working as an independent consultant in an agile space have enabled me to meet some of the cleverest people I've ever met in my life. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That sounds like a really wonderful experience. Well, finally, we turn to Matt, obviously we've heard from perspectives from people who work in the Civil Service, but the BBC is obviously also a very big institution in British lives - so it'd be really cool to hear how you wound up working there as you do now. 

 

Matt Card: 

So what, I, so I did the traditional route. I started out not knowing what I wanted to do. So I took a like a gap year and I was just working in retail for a while, and then I decided to go back to university and I picked, I wanted to do comp-something in computers. I found myself on a computer all the time trying to work things out. So I thought let me go and learn how to work, to do stuff. I did a sandwich course - so one year was out in, in the real world. And then I came back, completed the degree, and then I found a job in London at a, a small company. And then I got made redundant out of my first job, cried my eyes out, you know, because, you know when you get your first job and you're like, 'oh, this is amazing'. Because I didn't know what to do before I found out what I wanted to do. And, you know, so I thought, I thought this was it. And then I got made redundant. 

 

And then I was looking for another job, and then I found the BBC - it was really interesting because I didn't actually want to work at the BBC because I, of the perception of what I thought it was going to be like. So I went for the interview and it blew my mind - it was like 'wow' - because it was so different, it was like all open plan, like loads of floors and you could look out on the, on the whole building and everything is like, 'wow, this is amazing'. And then the second interview that I had the, the person who interviewed me just said, 'oh, so tell me, what's your favourite site?' And I was like, 'wow, this is a really interesting question'. So I was like YouTube - ‘cause it was 2009 so it's like YouTube was massive - and I was like just everybody can share their content, it's just amazing, you know? And he was like, 'right. It's a really good answer'. He asked me some other questions, and then I got the job, and I've been at the BBC ever since. I went, I started in London and I moved up to Manchester with the BBC, and I'm here now.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That sounds like it was a really positive experience. Do you think that doing your degree was something that made you more successful in your career? 

 

Matt Card: 

Yes and no. I think that my skills outside of, of the computer science field has really helped me. Like because, as I said, I worked in retail for a very long time, so my customer service skills really helped me because, at the end of the day, the users are customers, right? You just have to explain and you have to have difficult conversations with people to say, 'you can't have that right now'. You know that's got nothing to do with tech - that's just you can't have that right now. So, so it's, it's more about conversations and, and learning to talk to people and dealing with, dealing with personalities as well. That's, that's was really important.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Brilliant, thank you so much for sharing. So a question to both Chucks and Sam, do you think there are any kinds of supports that you've had in your life that were a factor in you being successful in your current jobs?  

 

Sam Bryant: 

So is there anyone who has supported me in my life and helped me to be successful? I would say well, initially my parents in terms of installing values into me that have made me want to be the best version of myself, who have, they've made me feel like nothings impossible to achieve. 

 

They helped to install values in me, make me bold, confident and just positive. And they made me a nice young lady who's good at communicating. And then along my career journey, I would say there have been a few people in GDS who have really encouraged me, especially along my journey to becoming a Delivery Manager - so I'm always thankful to them. And I feel like some of it's really internal and kind of spiritual, like, yeah, I feel that my connection, my religious connections helped to install lots of confidence and self-belief in me that helped me to naturally just push forward for myself as well. So, yeah.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, that's actually a really interesting fact, you're talking about religion, because I think support can come not just from people, but also from networks for instance. So, yeah, Chucks, if you've got any reflections on that, I'd be really interested.  

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Again, very similar to Sams. I'm a person of faith and, a person of Christian faith, have very strong connections with with the church. And, you know, people might some people know this, but I'm a first generation immigrant. So family network has always been at the heart of everything. I'm the youngest of seven - and my brothers and sisters have just sort of spurred me on to to to strive for excellence. One of the things I have experienced being a first generation immigrant is that I am conscious that I have been given an opportunity, and being in this country for me is, I am, you know, eternally grateful, you know, that that those who were here before me have built a platform that has enabled me to-to flourish. And I have this sense that I have to contribute to making that, making this place a better, a better place, not just for myself, but for all people, you know, all people irrespective of their backgrounds and irrespective of, of, of where they've come from.

 

But on GDS particularly I have found the support of the Deputy Director for Delivery absolutely of great value. I-I you know, this person has become somebody who has inspired confidence in me, has enabled me to understand the Civil Service. And I think everyone, BAME or not, need to have people who inspire confidence in you. You know, the director of GOV.UK has some great ambitious plans for GOV.UK - and each time I talk to her about these things, I feel, wow, you know, you've got these ambitions, which means I can have ambitions for for things, for people, I can do this, you're doing it, I can do it

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Yeah, it sounds like mentorship is a through line. So obviously, I hope you are happy where you are, even if it's a way station on what's next, but if you could change one thing about your career, would you? And what would it be? I think Chucks, you've got something on your mind on that front, don't you?

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Yes. I actually set out to becoming a doctor. If I can change something in my career now, I'll tell you what it is: I-I would not leave, you know, delivery, I would not change career at all. What I would like is to have had, or to still have the opportunity to gain a bit more learning that would enable me to do a bit more teaching, you know, and coaching. That is the bit of my job that I love so much - is that, is that bit of helping people, supporting individuals or teams in-in realising their potential. I-If I could change anything, it would probably spend some time learning how to be a better teacher. 

 

Matt Card: 

Sometimes I think everything happens for a reason, you know? And I struggled in a part of my career for, for a big part of my career. Some of that was because I moved up to Manchester by myself. I moved away from my support network. I learnt about resilience at the BBC and went on a course and it was really good. And what I realised is that I had lost a lot of confidence. And, you can break resilience down into many different parts, but there are four components, main components of resilience, and that is: confidence, adaptability, purposefulness and social support. And we all have a different varying range of all of these things. So I can safely say that most, most of my social support - and that's a lot in like our community, right? You know, it's our parents, Christian Faith, used to go church all the time, and that, we're centred around family, very centred around family. Other cultures too, not saying we're the only one. But I moved away from that. So then when things got a little bit tough, they got really tough, you know, so struggled for a bit.

 

But I would say if I could change anything, but I don't know if I would, it would be learning and realising my strengths earlier, because I've got a lot of strengths, and learning that failure isn't a bad thing. I took me a very long time to learn that failure isn't a bad thing.

 

And also, actually, Chucks mentioned it I think: the, the mentors. I didn't believe in mentors before I went on this resilience course, I thought I was fine. And then I was, when I went, I was like 'whoa. I'm not fine'. So it's like mentors - I work with a gentleman now called Phil Robinson. We just delivered a talk on Tuesday called 'Decommissioning: an engineering guide to decommissioning systemic racism', and it went down really well. The-the first person, Mark Kay, was the first person who I spoke to and explained to him exactly how I felt. You know, the pressures, the, the extra cognitive load that we go through, you know, the running things through a filter just to make sure that we're saying something quite right, wondering what if we're saying something quite right, wondering if someone in the room is shutting us down because of the colour of our skin or something like that - all of these things were rolling round. He was the first person that said, 'you know what? That's not right, you know. And I think we, we definitely need to do something about that'. 

 

Some people don't think it's like their place to get involved - Like 'oh, who am I to do this?' When I was like, no, no, no, no, help, we need your help, right? We need allies.

 

Obviously my dad. He's, he's the reason why I'm who, how I am right now, you know. He always used to talk about fellowship and all of this, and I'd be sitting 'oh no dad. What you doing that?' But now I'm talking about fellowship because you know what he used to do: he always used to ring up and talk about, and, and find out how people are doing. What do I do now: everyday when I wake up, I go on WhatsApp:' how are you doing? How you doing? How you doing?' And I just c-continue my day. So dad's very, very strong influence to me. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

There are a lot of nods in this conversation through what you've been saying, so I can see everybody's relating to it. And it sounds like you have a really great network of people supporting you, rooting for you - I'm, I'm very happy to hear that. Sam, any reflections from you? If you could change anything, would you? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

So I think Chucks and both Matthew have reflected on things that I would agree on and things that have resonated with me. In addition, I probably would have changed how quickly I took my career seriously. Initially when I joined the Civil Service until I found my niche which was delivery management, I nat-I didn't like necessarily see all of the opportunities that were directly in front of me. So even though I was doing my job amazingly, I wish, I wish, I would like to say I wish other people like saw it and was like, 'you know you're, like you could do way more than this. And someone did eventually, but it was like years later. But taken the onus on myself, like, I wish I was just like, like, 'let me see what else GDS has to offer'. And like, you're definitely interested in technology, and there are probably some non-technical roles that would suit to the T. So to, I wish I just did that kind of investigation piece a lot quicker.

 

I also don't feel like, I feel like everything happens in time and everything happens for a reason. So I'm sure my energies were invested elsewhere that it needed to be at that time. So, yeah, now I'm super focussed and I know exactly what my position is, where my skills lie and what I can offer to the tech industry as a Black female. So, yeah, that would be mine.  

 

But like Matthew said, I'm a bit of a perfectionist. So failing fast was hard for me to learn because I want everything to be perfect before I try out. So yeah, learning about that has literally revolutionised my life inside and outside of work. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Just a quick dive into it before I go on to the next question, but you mentioned being a perfectionist and I think Chuck's had a similar sort of conversation earlier. Do you think that is to do with your cultural background as well, that you feel like you've got to meet expectations and surpass them maybe? 

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Yeah, I-I mentioned one of seven children, and the least qualification amongst us is Masters degree. My mother was a headteacher, my father was a Nigerian government permanent secretary. So, yeah, there, there is this thing about the drive to achieve excellence. My mother would say, you know, whatever you become, you would have to become by yourself. Nobody would give it to you. Go out there and get it. You know, don't wait for opportunities to be given to you - create them, take them, demand them, you know. 

 

It's, it's unacceptable, you know, in my cultural background to, to sit on your hands. It's completely unacceptable. I cannot even conceive it. I really can't.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Those are really motivational things to say. I could see a lot of nodding with that again. I think that, yeah, Matt and Sam might have related to being raised like that maybe - I'm speculating. Let's hear from you both. 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Yeah, for me, my perfectionism definitely comes from my parents and my upbringing. My dad would always be like, if you get 99% on a test, like maybe other families would be like that’s an A, that's amazing, my parents would be like, where, what happened to the 1%? But I still, I-I don't necessarily wish I was brought up any different because I love who I am today. But I definitely know how to amend the things I was taught and implement them maybe in like a different, more creative way to get the same or better outcomes. So, yeah. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, it sounds like you've taken the best lessons from what you were raised like and the best lessons of what you know now and fused them together. That sounds really nice. So, Matt, any reflections on your family?  

 

Matt Card: 

Yeah. So, so I would come from a different angle. It's very interesting. So you get very different variations, and this is really good because I find that with stereotyping, everybody thinks that all Black people are kind like the same and we're not - we're very, very different you know. There's so many different cultures, you know, so many different countries involved in this thing. But one of the things I've always said to people is that, I can speak for a lot of people that I know who look like me - that they've always heard, you have to work ten times harder than your counterparts. And it's like one of the things that it's, it's confusing, and, and I know my parents were trying to put me in a good position so that I would succeed, but then what that actually does that actually starts to set you apart from your counterparts. And it can have a damaging effect because then you go to school and you're like 'right, ok I am different. Why am I different?' And then you're getting confirmation bias by, you know, so like your teachers who don't understand your culture. And unfortunately, that's where a lot of people don't know who they are yet, and they're learning who they are. So, you know, then these confirmation biases are happening, you know on both sides. 

 

So it's, it's kind of like, like what, what Sam said: y-y-you take what the good things and then apply it. Do, do agile with it right - put out some, get some feedback on it and then come back and then say, 'no, no, no. Let's change that here. What's the requirements? What, what was the user feedback? You know, I mean, was the stakeholders one?' And then then go forward again, you know? So that's what I would say. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That was really cool. So our next question, we've had a bit of a look into your past just now, but I was wondering if you've got any idea about your future. Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years? I don’t want to make any guesses about how old people are so I'm keeping it open for you so you can pick how far into the future you're going to look and what you think you'll be doing at that point. How about we start with Sam? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Yeah, so professionally I will be some sort of delivery manager head somewhere. I would love to work for a company that has a product that naturally is a part of my everyday life. And then using my experience in private sector come back to public sector, because I do feel like there's a lot we can learn in government from private sector organisations. But again, in turn, there's a lot that private sector companies can learn from government. So I'd love to like bring my expertise externally and then learn some stuff there and bring them back to government. 

 

I also see myself just being more of a head in the D&I [diversity and inclusion] space, especially where it comes to like being influential in terms of Black women in tech, Black people in tech in general. I'm going to be, or I already am a part of Mathew's network. So it's amazing that he's bringing together Black techs, so Black people in tech, so I am absolutely loving that and I'd love to do a lot more. I'm also really into working with organisations and schools, help them to be more diverse and inclusive. And I've done like, this summer, I did, did a session with some teachers with an organisation called Success through Soca, and we ran some sessions to give them ideas on how they can incorporate Black history into the curriculum. So that's really exciting, and I hope like, in the next 5 years we've really established a solid programme that can impact and revolutionise how we do stuff as businesses, organisations, schools, just like Matthew said, like we really can unpick a lot of the stuff if it really is just systemic. So, yeah, those are two highlights of where I see myself in 5 years.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I love it. You're already manifesting your future. That's great. So, yeah, Matt obviously your network was mentioned. What do you see in your future?

 

Matt Card: 

All right, I'll try to keep this quick. So more of the same. Straight up, more of the same. So I'm a software engineer right now. I'm applying for tech role, tech lead roles right now, I'm going to jump because I've realised my power, realised my strength. So engineering manager next, don't know how long that's going to take, probably 2 years on the trajectory that I'm on. And then probably moving up to CTO, Chief Technical Officer, stuff like that. Continue my public speaking and do more of that.  

 

And then beyond there, I'm want to create more networks - I'm, I seem to be really good at creating networks and motivating people, so I just want to do more of that, and, and bringing out the culture. So as I said, I've got a motivational platform, I'm doing work on D&I inside and outside of the, of the BBC. Then I'm running a think tank called Future Spective, where we think about the future. We think about what's going-because a lot people are thinking about the past - which we have to we have to understand where you're coming from, right, and for the present, because there's a lot stuff going on now - but I want people to think about the future as well: what's going to happen in 25 years, 30 years time? How is that going to translate? We, we all need to link up and talk to allies as well, talk to majority groups - just start that conversation. So it's all about that conversation. 

 

Oh, this might sound corny, but I'm going to change the world.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I love it, you got to aim high, you gotta aim high. All right. Round to you Chucks.  

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

I'm conscious there'll be a lot of people who listen to this who think, 'oh my goodness, you know what's in it for me in the next 5, 10 years?' You know, Black people. And I'm not you know, I'm not embarrassed to say that I'm not quite sure. 

 

You know, I-I hold this role as Head of Delivery for an organisation that has over 200 people in it. I know that I enjoy teaching. There is a lot that can be done in terms of education and and raising awareness. I, you know, when I said I'm very religious, I'm actually in my spare time a Church of England Vicar. So I do a lot of preaching on Sundays. And, and, and I have become this person who wants to bring people to a place where you realise that there isn't actually a need for discrimination. You know, there isn't actually a need for that. There isn't you know, there's no need to feel threatened by somebody who's slightly different from you. So I know what world I want to be in in the next 5, 10 years, I'm not quite sure my role in that. I'm also very ambitious. I know I'm qualified to be a director of a programme but I'm not quite sure how I'm going to navigate all of this.  

 

I have a vision of the world I want to be in - it's an inclusive world, is an open world, is a world where, you know, government services can be accessed easily. I want to educate people about diversity and educate people about how to run good projects, good projects and good programmes. How all of that shapes in the next 5 to 10 years, I really don't know. And, and it will work itself out. But one thing I have to say and I want to say to any Black person, particularly up and coming people who are not sure of what the future holds, is don't do nothing. You know, you may not be sure of what what it is you're going to do and how you're going to get there or your role in all of this, you may not be sure of that. One thing you cannot do is just sit back and feel sorry for yourself. Ask questions, come out and say, these are the things I enjoy, how does this progress? How does this, how do I make a difference? Don't shy away. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in the next 5 years, but I'm not going to not explore what is out there.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Great. Wise words. Matt anything to add for the future in Black excellence in tech?  

 

Matt Card: 

Yeah, I just want to echo everything that Chuck just said actually - just keep moving. If you don't know what you want to do, do something big and perfect that because then you've got the transferable skills. You see how we all spoke about what we used to do and now we just do this, and it was just a, it's just a iteration - there we go again - an iteration on what we used to do in a different form, right. So I've got them laughing.  

 

So I'll just roll into my like what I would tell kids is: learn how you learn. That's the simplest thing I can say - just learn how you learn. Don't let other people tell you how you learn because the school system can only teach you in a certain way, they've only got a certain capacity. So you need to learn how you learn what works best for you. Don't discredit the other ways. Keep them there as well and use those as well, because you have to learn, you have to pick up the knowledge from different people, and people then communicate in different ways to you, so you have to understand how they communicating to you, but learn how you learn best. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Very simple. I like it, very straightforward. Yes, Sam, anything from you that you want to pass on to the future stars? 

 

Sam Bryant: 

I would say just work on having self belief. I feel like a lot of things come from within, and I feel like it's really good to work on yourself. You can be around the right people and still not feel great within yourself. You really need to build up your self-confidence so that you don't feel intimidated in any room that you step into, even if you lack knowledge, because having the self-confidence will give you the power and the confidence to ask the questions, the silly question, the question that no one wants to asks, but to be fair half the people in the room want to know the answer to that question. When you just have that natural energy about you, you will naturally just go on that website and look for that networking event or go on YouTube and type in 'learn more about agile' or go on YouTube and find the video about how to get involved in tech or anything that your, you, your heart desires. 

 

So you really work on yourself.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you all for your amazing advice for any Black people who are interested in working in tech, data, digital, all that space. Do you have any advice for allies? What can we do to support Black colleagues in the workplace? Do you have any examples of exceptional ally action that listeners can take on and think about how they can put it into action maybe. 

 

Matt Card: 

It's roughly the same thing. Have self-confidence because what happens on the other side is that people are like, 'oh I don't want to make a mistake'. Take the same approach that we do here - fail fast. You're going to get things wrong as long as it comes in the right energy, you're going to be able to move on and people who are BAME are going to be able to understand where you're coming from, if it comes in the right energy and, and with the right intent.  

 

You know, do your homework, do your reading - there's loads of resources out there now. Talk to people. But there's, here's one: be slow to speak and quick to listen. Learn from other cultures because you can't manage people from other cultures if you don't know their culture - it's, it's it's almost impossible. Right. Sorry, sorry you can't lead people. You can manage them, but you can't lead, and leadership is different, right. There's a big gap in the middle, so someone has to lean forward first right. You know, some of the peers might be behind the curve and might not understand. Just talk to them as well, you know. Do things, just get yourself in the right frame of mind, practising gratitude is is is number one and just being confident as well. Chucks was confident to say that he didn't know - it's the self belief, he's just like, 'I don't know what I'm gonna do, but I'm going to something.' And that's amazing. If you hear it's slightly different to saying, 'oh, I don't know. I'm not going to do anything'. 

 

Sam Bryant:

For me I would say the first thing is accept that you are an ally. Within this context of race, if you are not Black or BAME, you are an ally, and you should treat that like really seriously. Like I don't have a choice that I'm Black. You actually don't have a choice that you're an ally. And I just feel like everyone in the workplace should take that really seriously. So just start taking action from today. If you are not BAME and you really want to help out, I just feel like everyone should feel like this: everyone, it's everyone's problem to resolve. That, I think that's my main message like, as long as you're in a workplace, you should just be trying to ensure that it's a great place for everyone to work. Whether your BAME or whether you're not.  

 

So yeah, like Matthew said, just reiterate the fact that there loads of re-resources out there. Go to your BAME network in the first instance. If you are an organisation that doesn't have an ally network, like GDS is really good at the moment, we literally have an allies network, but if you don't go to your BAME network and see how you can help out or just be, the be the bold person to start an allies network at your own organisation and bring your peers along the journey too. There's so much you can do, especially do you know what, in line, line management. I know Matthew said there's a difference between leadership and managing and there is, but really take your role as a line manager seriously. Literally, like all of my line managers in my career have not been BAME, and that always like I'm, I'm really always nervous about it because I really want my manager to be a champion for me naturally and take the role really seriously. So if you are a line manager, particularly for, for someone from a BAME background, really do you take that role seriously. Because in a lot of organisations, when it comes to like performance awards and performance ratings BAME people do tend to score the lowest. So we really need to work on how we are line managing BAME colleagues, encourage them, help them to recognise their skills. A lot of us want to be perfect, help us to work on the fact that we can fall fast, encourage us to just go and do random things in the organisation that naturally white colleagues are like naturally, more like risk averse - we're not. We, we don't want to like take risks because we feel that we might get in trouble. Or, yeah, just make sure the environment for your line reportee is one where they can just like flourish. Yeah, that would be my advice.  

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you, Sam. Finally, Chucks, any sage words for you to allies in the workplace? 

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Yes, absolutely. I'll start from some, something my father used to say: there are two types of people in the world. Those who listen to hear what you're saying and those who listen to respond. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people who are not a minority in this country, listen to respond. They're not listening to hear what I'm saying, they're listening to, to give me the script, the answer as per the script. You know, there isn't active listening to hear what, what I'm saying. And when you're not listening to hear what I'm saying, you miss you know, the things that I say that I never say. So you miss you know, hearing what I'm saying, that I don't have the words to express.  

A lot of, a lot of our white colleagues don't know how to listen to us. I had to learn how to listen too, I lived in Scotland for 14 years. I had to learn how to listen to my Scottish friends, not because of the accent, that's nothing to do with the accent, it's, it's, it's to learn expressions, colloquialism - all of that, what people say and what they mean. And then I moved down south. And as a-a-a-a Glaswegian friend of mine gave me a thing that has what English people say and what they mean. You know, when I was go-Chucks this is not Scotland, you're going down south and people are going to say one thing and mean another thing. And I had to learn how to listen.  

 

The other thing I want to say is, as an ally, please don't make assumptions. Assumptions, very bad things. You know unless you're making it in the context of project delivery and you can make assumptions and you come back it up and you can, you know, have your plans in place to respond to the assumptions. Don't make assumptions. Don't assume that because I am you know, I am Black, I-I-I don't have sunburn for instance. You know, that was one had to deal with today with somebody. You know, 'Do you burn? Do you get sunburn?' Assumptions, very bad things. If you don't understand the cultural manifestation of a behaviour, do ask. You know, Matthew's just said it all: read, ask, ask Google.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That's a lot of material for us to go through as allies for you in the workplace. You've given us plenty to work with. Thank you so much for sharing. I can see that it did take a bit of a toll on you as well. And I want to acknowledge that, that we shouldn't be putting this burden on you. But thank you for sharing these resources and tips nonetheless.

 

Hopefully less draining and more exciting for you, this is more about sharing the resources for fellow Black people working in tech. I was wondering if there is anything that, any events or organisations, that you wanted to give a shout out to that listeners can look at, and we can include the details in the show notes and the blog post that accompanies the episode.

 

Matt Card: 

So I just wanted to say, you know, I've got my motivational platform - Release D Reality. The Future Spective is, is brand new - so just watch out for, for that. So that Black tech network group: you can contact me on info@ReleaseDReality.com or MatthewCard@gmail.com.

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

I would encourage an eye out for several agile meetups - I’m not sure in the current circumstance with Coronavirus. They’re usually advertised on key major network websites and Twitter, on Twitter as well. So people will do well to look out for such, and where possible, please a-attend. ‘Cause it’s, it’s a really good way to network and to learn and to hear what’s, what’s happening in the industry, what other people are doing, some of the ideas that are coming through.

 

Sam Bryant:

Firstly I’d like to shout out GDS BAME Network, because I think we're doing some amazing things as a community and the anti-racism network as well that has formed this year - I would just like to shout them out because their work has literally been amazing and has changed, changed the culture in GDS essentially, and that has been extremely positive. 

I'd also like to shout out Success through Soca. I work alongside them doing, using Black British history to help to build leadership skills within schools, colleges, and we also work with organisations to help them transform the organisations and allow them to be more diverse and inclusive. 

 

Another organisation I'd like to share, or give a shout out to is Pink Dynasty. They're doing some amazing work in the tech space. They have events with people who are not specifically techies, but want to get into a career in technology. And as I’ve said, I am a Delivery Manager and typically that’s not like a super techie role but definitely is a way to encourage people who have a passion for technology to not be dissuaded into getting involved. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Amazing, these sound like really worthwhile organisations and I really hope that our listeners take a look at them and get involved with them as well. 

 

Thank you so much for sharing those and also for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major pad-you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

Goodbye.

 

Chucks Iwuagwu: 

Bye. 

 

Sam Bryant: 

Bye.

 

Matt Card:

Bye bye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #23: The Data Standards Authority

Government Digital Service Podcast #23: The Data Standards Authority

September 30, 2020

Alison Pritchard:

Hello and welcome to this month's episode of the Government Digital Service Podcast. I'm Alison Pritchard, the Director General at GDS - before taking up appointment at the ONS [Office for National Statistics] as its Deputy National Statistician and Director General for Data Capability. 

 

So I'm delighted that, although I'm moving, I'll still be part of the wider digital and data transformation agenda through ONS’s digital and data services, and our work on data governance boards. 

 

GDS is responsible for the digital transformation of government. As part of that, we’ve set a vision for digital government to be joined up, trusted and responsive to user needs. We're focussing on 5 pillars to get that done, one of which is data - the focus of this podcast. 

 

Government holds considerable volumes of data in a myriad of places. But often this data is inconsistent, incomplete or just unusable. If the government is going to realise the benefits data can bring, we'll need to fix the foundations. And one way of doing this is by focussing on data standards. 

 

GDS is leading a new authority, the Data Standards Authority (DSA), that focuses on making data shareable and accessible across government services. The metadata standards and guidance we published in August were our first deliverable. They cover what information should be recorded when sharing data across government - for example in spreadsheets - to assure it's standardised and easy to use. It's a step in quality assuring how government data is shared. Our focus on standards is one part of the bigger picture around better managing data to assure better policy outcomes and deliver more joined-up services to citizens. 

 

That's all from me. I'll now hand over to Vanessa Schneider, the podcast host, who will be speaking to technical leads from GDS and ONS about how we take this work forward. Enjoy the discussion. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you Alison. As Alison said, I’m Vanessa Schneider, Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS and your host today. Joining me are Rosalie Marshall and Tomas Sanchez. Rosalie, let's start with you. Can you please introduce yourself and what you do?

 

Rosalie Marshall:

I'm Rosalie. I'm the Technical Lead for the Government Data Standards Authority. That involves a lot of recruitment, looking and getting work streams off the ground relating to data standards, and just looking at the data standards landscape in detail.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you, Rosalie. Tomas, could you please introduce yourself? 

 

Tomas Sanchez:

Yes. So I'm Tomas. I'm the Chief Data Architect for ONS [Office for National Statistics]. And I'm responsible for a bunch of things related to data architecture and data management. So one of those things is the ONS Data Strategy. And amongst the various things that my division in ONS does is best practices around data. 

 

One of the things that we work on is data standardisation. So apart from that, I'm also quite keen, and responsible to talking to various departments across government about all the things that we do with the aim of, you know, being on the same page of best practises and so on. And this is how we got in touch with the Data Standards Authority and other streams in central government.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You mentioned that your area covers data standards in government. What does that entail?

 

Tomas Sanchez:

So basically, the whole point of standardisation is to make sure that everybody uses the same things, particularly related to data. And it is, it is good that ONS is trying to do this. But we cannot do this by ourselves. Doing this in a coordinated way through, sort of, central authority like the DSA is very helpful. 

 

While ONS has its own standards, to do what we need to do in ONS, there is, we need to agree amongst the different departments of what it is that we are trying to standardise, and the scoping of this and what things we’re doing first and we are doing second and so on is part of what the DSA is about.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Rosalie, so you work as part of the DSA. How do you work together with Tomas on this issue?

 

Rosalie Marshall:

So, yes. So this is a joint actually endeavour between the Government Digital Service and ONS. So we're actually partnering up on the Data Standards Authority. So while we are at the central point in GDS, we are working very closely with ONS and actually a number of our team members will sit within ONS. 

 

The good thing about being virtual is that we've really been able to work very tightly together and department lines haven't played much of a part.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

So, as Rosalie mentioned, the Data Standards Authority is very new. Would you mind sharing with the listeners how it came about? What kicked it all off? 

 

Rosalie Marshall: 

So the Data Standards Authority was kicked off about roughly at what was probably just over a year ago now in terms of idea. So that was done by DCMS, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, who at that point looked after data policy for government and they worked with a number of departments on this bid, including, it was mainly actually GDS and ONS. So we've been working together now for a while on what this should look like. And since March, it's become a reality.

 

Tomas Sanchez

So when I joined ONS in 2017, apart from looking internally at the office to see what we should do internally for better practices in terms of data management, we also thought that it was very important to look across government and see what other people are doing so we can learn from others and hopefully maybe others can learn from us eventually. 

 

One of the things that we did is setting up the Cross-government Data Architecture Community, which was just a community of practitioners around data architecture and data management, which of course included data standardisation, amongst other things. Apart from this community, we also got involved in a number of forums in central government, looking at data and data usage and data infrastructure and other things, such as, for example, the Data Leaders Network. And it was within these conversations within central government that we got in touch with DCMS and GDS, who were also thinking about how to work on data foundations and data infrastructure for government to enhance data sharing, data interoperability, and just how to use data better in government. 

 

And it was that way that the idea of creating a central authority in charge of fixing one of the fundamental problems of data, which data standardisation tends to be. So as Rosalie mentioned, we worked quite a long time with them for various reasons. Listeners might remember that there was supposed to be a spending review in 2019, which never happened. So that gave us a lot of time to think about how to go, how to, how to do this. And eventually we did put a bid for the budget this year, earlier this year. 

 

And then that's how the Data Standards Authority got funded and the rest is history obviously.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So looking to the future of the DSA, what are your immediate next goals? I know that you've put out pieces of guidance, for instance.

 

Rosalie Marshall:

So the big ones are, we've got an API catalogue that is trying to, it's not a workstream that is actually setting a standard in data, but it's helping us with our journey on standards because we need transparency of where data exchange is taking place. 

 

I think it's important that we mention that, you know, we are looking at data flow as a priority. There's a lot that you can do within departments in terms of governance. But really, we're looking at that boundary and the data exchange that is happening between departments and how we can improve that.

 

So as a first off, you know, we are getting the API catalogue into a service or product that is really worthwhile for departments to use. We want to make sure that there's a lot more uptake of that catalogue on there to increase transparency of development taking place, but also so we can understand the standards that are being used by APIs. So that's one workstream.

 

So one of the big work streams that we got off the ground is relating to metadata standards. And that was a very entry level piece of, very entry level standard, in some ways. We're recommending that we follow schema.org and Dublin Core and also csv on the web. So that's a recommendation that we are now working with departments further along on their metadata journeys. We got a workshop coming up on the 2nd October that we'd like as many people to join as possible to understand where everyone's at.

 

We're also looking at standards in relation to file formats and doing some work there. And then I think there's 2 areas which probably Tomas is best placed to talk about and that’s around what we're thinking about at least. So it's it's probably too early days, but at least we can share some of the thinking that we're doing around some of the identifiers and also data types as well.

 

Tomas Sanchez:

So Rosalie, mentioned about identifiers, I think the overall concept is that something that we call reference data that people might know with different names, like master data or code list or typologies etc. So there are multiple names of, for those.

 

But essentially the idea from this is that there are lists of items or entities that people refer to all the time. So we think there are datasets, for example, many datasets contain address information. So the idea is, so there is only one valid list of all the addresses in the country. So if we will have a reference set of addresses that everybody can refer to, then it will be easier to link datasets amongst themselves that are talking about those addresses, right?

 

And you can make the same case for other types of things, like the standard classifications or lists of businesses or things like that, which government departments refer to all the time to do their work, but that there is not one version of the truth for the whole government just because we didn't get to do that yet together. 

 

And I think that is basically the foundations of making sure that we can link data sets across government more easily. And of course, part of that as Rosalie was mentioning is that you need to have a unique identifier for each one of these addresses or these entities. Right. So this is definitely something that we need to look at as part of the standardising data, but reference data as a whole is, as I said, a key piece of the puzzle to standardise data across government.

 

The other thing that Rosalie mentioned there is data types. So obviously if we are sharing data across departments, which is of a specific type, for example, a date. So if we maintain different standards for dates, so we record the data for different ways for dates, then when we get data from other departments, then we have to transform that into a format that we can use internally. And that transformation, maybe dates doesn't sound very complex, but you have to do this for more complex data - types of data. Then it becomes quite time consuming. 

 

So if we get to manage to standardise data types and then departments are able to adopt this. Again, we are not only helping them on their work, they have to do for themselves so they don't have to think about what to use. So we provide guidance of what data type standards they can use. But also when we get to share data, then we already have the same format that we are using internally. So it's much easier to process.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

The term metadata has cropped a few times now. Can you explain what kind of data that is please?

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

So when people ask me, what metadata is, I always think about, you know, everybody knows libraries. People have used libraries. You go to the library, you have a lot of books in a lot of shelves, and you have to find the book that you are looking for. So the books themselves are the content, are the data. Right. But we need to find a way of finding things efficiently. If we had every book indexed in a different way and we stored different type of information for each book, it would be very difficult to do it.

 

But as we all have been in libraries, we know that you have a catalogue where you go and then you have the title of the book and the author of the book you can search for either you can search for date or you can search for other thing. So that information that we are storing about the book, which is the content, that's what is metadata, so it’s information about the data itself. Right. So. So all the data centre are not books is exactly the same thing. We have to find a consistent way of describing the data so that we can catalogue it better.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Rosalie, would you mind explaining to the listeners what an API is? I hear that's a challenging question. 

 

Rosalie Marshall: 

It is a challenging question just because everyone has a different answer. So an API is just another one of our lovely acronyms that we have in government. It stands for application programming interface, so, and that kinda tells you what it is, it’s the interface for your application. APIs come up in talking about data exchange. 

 

The way I guess you can kind of start to understand it, I think I started to understand it when someone talked to me about an API being like a restaurant menu. It tells you what’s on, what you can have, from an application. So, you know, if your, an API will talk about all the different features within an application that you need to be aware of in order to interact with that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:
I understand that you're also expecting to set standards for memorandums of understandings, also known as MoUs. Can you please explain a bit more about what that means? 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

So in terms of the MoUs, so they are, you know, those and data-sharing agreements are formed within the public sector when data exchange is being passed from one entity to another. And the difficulty with the landscape at the moment is that the MoUs and data-sharing agreements take lots of different forms, cover lots of different areas. 

 

And it's quite a big undertaking when forming these because legal teams often need to be involved. And there's obviously a lot to think about when we're working on a data-sharing agreement.

 

So it's just really bringing standards to this area so that we can improve efficiency in data-sharing and make it easier for those who want to consume data, particularly on local authorities I think. You know there’s, local authorities are not a big API developers at the moment, but they consume a huge amount of government data from all, all over government and loads of departments. So for them, it's a big undertaking when it comes to MoUs. So actually kind of simplifying the process and all, all conforming to a certain standard and template is a good way forward. So that's something that we're starting to look at.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So, you've touched on a couple of topics, such as the identifiers and transparency, and it seems like ethics are quite an important component of that. I know that in 2018 there was a Data Ethics Framework that was published. 

 

Rosalie Marshall: 

The Data Ethics Framework is not a piece that’s happening in the Data Standards Authority. But it's obviously something that we need to be aware of and tapped into.

 

We are updating a number of different pieces of guidance, for example, at the moment, we're redrafting Point 10 of the Technology Code of Practice, which relates to data. And, you know, we're also updating the government API standards. And so we're working on new guidance and standards as part of the DSA. 

 

And obviously something that we need to be aware of when doing that is the Data Ethics Framework, which is a framework that sets out principles for how data should be shared in the public sector and really builds on the Civil Service Code in some ways, so it builds on the idea of managing data with integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. So it's just, I mean, there's probably other people who can give you better summaries. But, yeah, it's important to be aware of when writing any guidance on data.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

I was just wondering, Rosalie, if you knew of a success that government has had where we've started standardising data. 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

Yes. So there are a number of different successes that we could point to. I mean, there's I think, the API standards were one area that has been very successful in terms of setting central government standards and having other departments follow them. So the API standards were launched in 2018 and have been iterated with the API and data exchange community. But we know that a lot of departments are following these standards and are building their API strategies around them. 

 

The reason why it's important to follow the API standards are for consistency in terms of API development, but also in terms of better data flow because of following the data standards that exist. You know, we refer to the ISO date standard, for example, in the API standards. 

 

It also ensures that APIs are developed securely, that transfer can happen in the right way. And that versioning again, is clear. So, as I said, there are benefits.

 

There's also benefits in terms of findability for following these standards, in terms of people moving around development teams and having the right skills, knowing what skills you need for API development. 

 

So that's one example of where we've been successful in setting government standards relating to data centrally. 

 

There's also examples of government using data where it's a positive experience. And I think that's really around moving to the delivery of whole services. So rather than a citizen having to interact with one department for a particular service, they can just think about interacting with the service and you know, the numbers of departments that help support that service isn't something they need to know about. 

 

So, for example, one of the services that has been on the transformation towards being a whole service is that of the Blue Badge scheme, which is managed by the Department for Transport [DfT] and is a scheme that gives those with disabilities access to restricted parking areas. 

 

So, you know, previously local authorities had to kind of manage the eligibility for this scheme. And, you know, they would have many applications, some that wouldn't be successful. I think they received kind of, around 2,500 applications a month that they had to deal with. But, and then there were obviously lots of different data exchanges that happened with the Department for Transport and local councils, before a Blue Badge could be given to the applicant.

 

But now a Blue Badge user goes to GOV.UK to have their eligibility confirmed. And then an API seamlessly links the customer back to the local council’s case management system for the application process. Once approved, another API links back to the central system, to store the record, and then at this point, the Blue Badge is produced and sent to the customer centrally by DfT. So it's a lot of a smoother system. 

 

And I guess what's next is integration through APIs with some of the other departments that are involved in Blue Badges like DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], which has to produce the letter of eligibility. A citizen needs that to upload onto GOV.UK and like the Passport Office, where you need to provide a picture of you and proof of your identity. So, you know, there's still a way to go on a service like that, but it shows the direction in which, you know, where government services are heading. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you, Rosalie. Tomas, I was wondering what kind of challenges do you foresee in establishing data standards across government? I assume with the ONS you interface with a lot of departments providing data. Do you have any idea?

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

So indeed, we do interface with a lot of departments. Obviously doing this at ONS’s scale, and doing this at a government scale is quite a different thing.

 

But I think definitely the area that's probably going to be a challenge is the governance in the sense that we put guidelines of how people, how other departments can approach standardisation, but making sure that people actually or departments actually follow the system, that is is, it is a different thing. Right?

 

So obviously, how to approach this is a delicate thing. Obviously, departments want to continue doing their job without having interference in terms of how they have to do their job. 

 

But we in central government believe that doing this, following certain standards is in the end more beneficial for the government as a whole. And we need to try to put something in there to make sure that these guidelines are adopted. So how exactly to do that? How to incentivise departments to actually do this? I think it's going to be quite a tough challenge. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Would that kind of enforcement lie with the DSA or is it something that can be incentivised in another way do you think?

 

Tomas Sanchez:

I wouldn't like to call it enforcement, incentivising is, is a better word. I think there are different ways of doing it. You think about GDS is already doing this with the IT and digital in different ways. Probably the best way of approaching it is using the existing mechanisms and include the data standardisation within those. So hopefully we can exist, we can reuse existing things without having to add new layers of complexity to how certain things are incentivised. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I can tell that you're both very passionate about data and making sure that government has usable data and is able to share data with each other to make it services better for citizens. I was wondering, where does that come from?

 

Rosalie Marshall:

Personally, like, you know, you'd have lots of circumstances in your life. And I guess some people have more interactions with the state than others. You know, depending on your health, you know, whether you have kids.

 

And I guess, like, I've probably had a fair amount. So it comes from just understanding that frustration of another organisation having data about me that might not be accurate or that, or them not having it at all. And I'm wondering why that is. You know, I've had 2 kids on the NHS system. It was frustrating to me, for example, that the hospital didn't have any of the records that I’d had my first child with. And there was no way to get those records. So I then started creating my own records and holding all the data myself. 

 

And there's so many examples that I've gone through. And I'm sure you know, there's so many people in this boat and it's just wanting to fix things and wanting to make data work for the end user. 

 

But also, as a civil servant, I see silos and it's sometimes frustrating when you realise that, you know, through no fault of an individual, because this is just as we know, this is the system that needs improving, it's not one organisation or individual. We just need to fix this. So, so if we can create standards that everyone can use and that's why we're focusing on international, on open standards, because those are the ones that can cross boundaries and that, you know, it's not just going to be working in one department, but it will help join up both central and local and the wider public sector. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you. Tomas, is there maybe a service that you hope you are able to change through the standardisation of data?

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

So I think data is such at the core of everything that not only government, but every organisation in this country does, that having a right way of standardising the data and making the data clear so everybody can understand it better will basically, virtually benefit, not just the organisations themselves that are doing the services, but also the users of those services.

 

And if we think about government and we see government as an organisation which provides services to the users based on data that actually government collects from the users themselves. Then you need to have some opportunity to enhance that service. And that's exactly what we want to do.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Rosalie, any thoughts? 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

I think, you know, yeah, I would agree with Tomas. I think there’s a lot of priority areas that that need improvement, for example, social care. You know, I talked about delivering whole services for users and things like the Blue Badge scheme, which is, which I see as very important. 

 

But there's also, you know, bringing, you know, the social care, those departments that are involved there and allowing them to share data to help those who are vulnerable. There's also a lot, you know, in terms of the environment where, you know, sharing data between the energy sector and you know Ofgem and some of the big energy companies, there's a huge amount there that we could do with improved data standards as well. 

 

So I think there's so many things that we can make better in public life with data if it's done right. And so, yeah, just I mean, I can’t pick one area really. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That was unfair of me. I'll give you that. You mentioned it earlier, there was a way for listeners to get involved, if I'm not mistaken. Could you please remind us what that opportunity was? 

 

Rosalie Marshall:

There’s quite a lot of ways people can get in touch. There's a number of workshops that are coming up that we'd really like cross-government engagement on and attendance. 

 

So we've got an API catalogue workshop for the API community. We also have a metadata workshop coming up on the 2nd October for those who are working in metadata and we're planning to blog a lot more about the work that we're doing. So we invite people to comment on those blogs and get in touch if they want to talk to us. We're also looking at having an open repo on GitHub to help share some of our work and invite feedback on that as well. So, yeah, we're hoping to make it really easy to contact us. And we do have an email address as well that people can write to, which is data-standards-authority@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk. So that’s also open to everyone to use.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thanks, Rosalie. It's not the easiest one to spell out, but we'll make sure to include it in our show notes. 

 

I really appreciate you giving me your time so that we could record this episode. Thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. The transcripts are available on Podbean.

 

Goodbye. 

 

Tomas Sanchez: 

Thank you, bye. 

 

Rosalie Marshall

Thanks so much for having us. Bye.

 

Government Digital Service Podcast #22: Content Design

Government Digital Service Podcast #22: Content Design

August 27, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And for this month's episode, we're talking about Content Design. We're going to find out what it is, how it helps government and where you can learn more. And to tell me the answer to these questions are Amanda Diamond and Ben Hazell. So welcome both to the GDS Podcast. Please could you introduce yourselves and your job roles here at GDS. Amanda first. 

 

Amanda Diamond:

Yeah, hi, Laura. I'm Amanda Diamond and I'm Head of GDS Content Design and Head of the Cross-government Content Community. I joined GDS in 2016, so August 2016, in fact. So it is 4 years exactly that I've been at GDS. Last year I went on loan to Acas as their Head of Content to help with their digital transformation. And prior to that I have worked in journalism. So I started out as a journalist. Prior to GDS, I worked at Which?, the consumer association, as their Deputy Editor for Which? magazine, Deputy Editor for their travel magazin, and I helped launch and run their consumer rights website as their Consumer Rights Editor.  

 

Ben Hazell:

Hello, I'm Ben Hazell. I'm a Content Product Lead here at GDS on the GOV.UK programme. I currently work on a team dealing with Coronavirus Public Information Campaign. In the recent past, 5 months ago, I was working on the EU Exit Public Information Campaign. And prior to that, I've been working on the means of publishing and production for content on GOV.UK, looking at workflows and providing the tools and data that help people manage the content on GOV.UK. Prior to that, like Amanda, I was actually in journalism. I worked on a big newspaper website for about 9 years.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you both for introducing yourselves. And I want to start with the first of my questions which is, what is content design?  

 

Amanda Diamond: 

I don't mind starting, and that is a great question, Laura, and one that I love to answer. So basically and I'll tell you for why, people often confuse content design with different things, mainly comms. They also think that content design is just about the words. And of course, words are really important and content design is you know concerned with words. But it's not the only thing when you're talking about content design. 

 

So content design could be a map, it could be text on a button or a sign. It also includes things like charts or graphs. Content design is about packaging up the right information in a way that makes it easy for people to understand at the point that they most need it. 

 

So for me, I often tell people that content design is at its core: problem solving. And what do I mean about that? Well, I mean that it's about asking the right questions to get to the best solution for your audience. So the best solution for your users. So asking questions like, well, what do our users need to know? What do they need to do? And what evidence? - it's all about the evidence - what evidence do we have to support what we think our users need to know or need to do? Because there’s a big difference between what we think our users need, and what they actually need. And that can often confuse things. And we also ask things like, how can we make the overall experience better for our users? So before Content Designers even put like a single word to a page, what they need to do is like dedicate a lot of time, a lot of effort to understanding the problem in the first place so that we can give people what they need. 

 

Ben Hazell: 

Yeah, and I definitely, I agree with all of that. There's no doubt that there's a fair chunk of writing in what we do. But it's also about use of evidence, about research and about iteration, about constant improvement. And I think a lot of it comes back to being humble about understanding that it's not about what we want to say, it's about finding out what people actually need from us.

 

We're trying to make things simple. In my teams, we often talk about making information easy to find and making sure information is easy to understand. And making things simple - that's not dumbing down. That's actually opening up and being able to process complexity and distill it down to what other people actually need to know and can act upon. That is both important and rewarding. And it's often the kind of fun puzzle and it can be as much about what you're getting rid of and pruning down to find the shape. So perhaps I could compare it to sculpting. You know, the thing exists in the centre of the marble and you just keep chipping away to get to the beautiful thing that people need.

 

Laura Stevens: 

I did enjoy the sculpture one as well because Amanda you're coming to us from an artist's studio as well. So clearly there's something in this recording.

 

Amanda Diamond: 

And interestingly, my other half, he -it's not my studio, my artist studio, I’ll hasten to add, if only! It’s my partner’s and he is a sculptor by trade. So yeah, full circle. 

 

Laura Stevens:

  1. So now we know what is. Let's go back in time a bit. So GDS is actually the home of content design in the government too as the term and the discipline originated here under GDS’s first Head of Content Design, Sarah Richards. And why do you think it came out of the early days of GDS?

 

Amanda Diamond: 

So really good question. And I think it is really useful for us to pause and reflect and look back sometimes upon this, because it's not, you know, content design, as you said, it came from, as a discipline it came from GDS.

 

So really, it only started to emerge around 2010, so 2010, 2014. So in the grand scheme of things, as a discipline, it is very young. And so it's still evolving and it's still growing. And so back in the early 2000s, before we had GOV.UK, we had DirectGov. And alongside that, we had like hundreds of other government websites. So it was, it was a mess really because users had to really understand and know what government department governed the thing that they were looking for. 

 

So what GOV.UK did was we brought websites together into a single domain that we now know of as GOV.UK. And that was a massive undertaking. And the reason for doing that was was simple. It was, it was to make things easier for users to access and understand, make things clearer and crucially to remove the burden on people to have to navigate and understand all of the structures of government. 

 

So back in the early days, GOV.UK, GDS picked I think it was around, I think it was the top 25 services in what was known as the Exemplar Programme. I think things like that included things that Register to Vote, Lasting Power of Attorney, Carer's Allowance. And so I think through that process, we, we, we discovered that it actually wasn't really about website redesign, it was more about service design. 

 

And that's where content design and service design, interaction design and user research kind of came together under this banner of user centred design because you can't have good services without content design essentially. All services contain words or images or artefacts, content artefacts, workflows, journeys, and so you need a content designer to help build these. So I think that's kind of where it, where it sort of emerged from. 

 

But really, fundamentally, with a relentless focus on putting the user at the heart, heart of everything, rather than always relying on what government wants to tell people and what government wants to, to push out to folks. It was a sort of like a reversal of that and a relentless focus on what folks needed of government and what folks needed to, to understand and learn to do the things they need to do as a citizen.  

 

Ben Hazell: 

I felt what I could add to that is perhaps my journey into content design and how I came to understand what GDS was doing, because in the late 2000s, kind of 2008, 2009, a lot of my work in newspapers was around search optimisation. And that was quite a big change for that industry, because instead of everything being based upon some kind of monthly reports of sales figures and editors who had a kind of supernatural knowledge of their reader base, suddenly you actually were presented with almost real time data about what people were looking for and interested in. 

 

And sure, there were all the criticisms about tons of stories about Britney Spears all of a sudden, but what it actually came back to was you could see what people wanted to find out from us and we could start to model our online content around what people's expectations were. And it opened up a really interesting era of kind of experimenting with formats, experimenting with the ways in which news content was produced. 

 

And from there, I started to kind of get quite interested in what I could see GDS was doing and they were winning awards at that time for user centred design because it was taking that evidence base about what people actually need for a variety of digital mechanisms and applying it to create not just pieces of content, but structures of content that better serve people. And of course, it was wonderful to move from the media over to somewhere like GOV.UK, which is not beholden to advertising.

 

So it was that combination of the availability of digital data and being able to more effectively get to what government wanted to happen, because this is also all about not just about making things simpler for users, but making things simpler for users has great benefits for government. If you make things easy for people to do, you reduce any burden on support services, you increase the level of compliance, they're happier. It's more cost effective for government. 

 

Amanda Diamond: 

I don't have exact figures, but I, I do know that savings in the millions have been made because of, as Ben rightly describes, our reduce on support services, calls to contact centres and enabling people to do the things they need to do more easily and to self-serve. And so, I mean, that's a huge, that's a huge benefit not just to government, but to the taxpayer, to the public purse. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I think one example of content design that has also got a bit of attention recently was the Sara Wilcox NHS blog on the language of health and why they need to be searched and found using pee and poo, people understood that and that is a huge benefit that people will search that and that will help their health. So I think as well as saving time or money, it's also directly making sure people get the information they need when they need it at those urgent points. 

 

Amanda Diamond: 

Exactly. If you think about the history of language and the history, sort of professional or sort of authoritative language - it’s, it's lofty and it is full of jargon and it is full of often if you think of legal, the legal profession is full of Latin terms and even science as well it’s full of, you know, the medical profession is full of Latin phrases. 

 

Now, that doesn't do anybody any justice because it is just putting up barriers for people to be able to understand and act on. And so what we do as content designers is we and, and that blog that you talked about, Laura, is about reducing those barriers and really sort of democratising language - like language is for everyone. And we shouldn't be, we shouldn't be sort of putting those barriers in place. We should be trying to break them down. 

 

Ben Hazell: 

Yes. And I'd say we have to also we do think about the audience for any given piece of content. So it's not that there's a general fight against technical language. Sometimes something has a precise term and a precise name, and that is the efficient way of communicating it that's right for the audience in question. 

 

But on the other hand, what we also know and we have evidence to show this, is that there's this assumption that as people pick up more professional skill, they like more and more verbose language, which seems exclusive. Whereas actually the opposite is true. People in high skilled professions, highly qualified professions, often want things to be simple because they don't want to have to spend their time unpicking complex documents. They need to get on with their job. So, yes, we use technical language where it's appropriate to do so. But we're also always looking to make things simple whilst also keeping them precise. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Picking up on what you’re both just saying, and I just want to talk about the link between content design and accessibility. We should always think about accessibility with everything GDS does because people don’t have a choice when they interact with government, they have to use our services. They can't shop around. So would you would you talk about how the language being used helps with making sure that we don't create any barriers unnecessarily to services?

 

Amanda Diamond: 

Yeah, absolutely, Laura. I mean, like accessibility is, I think really is at the heart of content design as a discipline. If you make things clear and simple, that means writing things clearly and simply in plain language and in language that users use themselves. 

 

Also, I think people, people make a mistake and often kind of confuse what we mean by accessibility. Accessibility is not something that is just for a certain group or subset of people. Accessibility is about catering to everyone and all of the time. So there is a difference between, you know, there might be people who have permanent accessibility needs, there might be people who have some temporary accessibility needs and there might be people who have situational accessibility needs.

 

And the great example that I can point to is, you know, somebody who has got - who’s had an arm amputated. That is one that that is a permanent, that is a person with a permanent need, accessibility need. Somebody that might have sprained their wrist or broken their wrist. And so their need is temporary, but they still need, they might still need to access and access our services. And then there's a sort of a situational need as well. So, you know, if you're a parent and you have to hold a child, well, you have to do something quickly, then you are impaired because you are holding a child and that’s situational, that's not going to last, but you still may need to you know, do something in that time. 

 

And the same thing goes, I think, for sort of cognitive access needs as well. If we are, you know, if, if we are writing in language that is convoluted and verbose and lofty, we are unintentionally creating barriers to people who might have cognitive challenges or who might have dyslexia or people who who are just reading at speed and need to do something really, really quickly and access and sort of comprehend something really, really quickly. 

 

So, yeah, I think like accessibility for me, beyond the legal requirements that we have, we know that there are new accessibility requirements coming into force on the 23 September this year. It's beyond for me, beyond a legal duty and it's also a moral duty as well. And I think that should be at the heart of everything that we're that we're doing as government. 

 

As you said, Laura, people don't have a choice other than to interact with government. People are not looking at the GOV.UK website and hanging out in their lunch break and just browsing and having a good old read. People are coming to our site because they need to do something because government has mandated that it's a legal requirement to do a thing or to get, you know, get document to do a thing or whatever it might be. And so it really is our duty then if we're making people do these things that we have to make the information in the ways in which they need to do these things as simple and as clear as possible. 

 

Ben Hazell: 

I would agree with all of that, I’m reminded of that phrase, ‘this is for everyone’. I specifically work for GOV.UK, which is always worth mentioning is just one highly visible part of what GDS does. But GOV.UK as a platform is designed to be very, very adaptable. So all the information that is published should be in a clean HTML form, which can then be picked up and experienced in different ways. Now, some of that is going to be about assistive technologies, but actually it also speaks to the need for people to come by information from GOV.UK in a variety of different ways now.

 

So by having properly structured clean text, we can work with voice interfaces. We can make sure that Amazon, Alexa or Google Home can interpret our information. We make sure that a Google search results page can quickly deliver a quick answer to a person. We make sure that content can be syndicated out through API so it can be republished by other organisations who might have closer contact with people who need it. So we can syndicate things very efficiently in a structured way over to organisations like Shelter or Citizens Advice if they were able to make use of it. There's a lot to be said for the platform itself being quite an open platform which can easily be adapted upon.

 

One interesting thing about coronavirus content has been the accelerated shift in the mobile audience, as you might imagine, with everybody staying at home, they're not actually accessing the internet quite as much on work computers. And we saw at the peak up to 90% of all traffic to coronavirus information was coming from smartphones. Now, we've long on GOV.UK practiced mobile-first design, but something like that really draws attention to needing to communicate clearly and put things in a logical order for people viewing it in a single narrow screen. So when we talk about accessibility, another thing to think about is just the sheer movement to a mobile audience. And what that actually means for how we produce things. We simply can't get away with big charts or diagrams that are only designed to be read on a work computer screen. People are using their mobiles at home and that's what we need to design for. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And sort of I thinking about, Ben, what you're saying about your SEO, your search engine optimisation experience earlier, also content design surely helps like how, where to find all this information on GOV.UK. 

 

Ben Hazell:

We're in a time with coronavirus and the EU Exit when lots of things are changing quite rapidly. I think some of the most exciting things we've been playing with on GOV.UK is around adaptive content, about the fact that there are many variables. So the guidance for any one person needs to follow could vary quite a lot based on their individual circumstances. And we've been doing more and more with experimenting with content, which actually asks the user some questions so that we can understand exactly what their needs are and then modifies and adapts the guidance to give them just the elements which are relevant to them. 

 

So one of the most interesting examples of that has been the Get Ready for Brexit campaign or which we refer to as the EU Exit Checker. The Brexit Checker is about, is about asking people to help us understand exactly what they need and only showing them the information which is relevant to their circumstances. So it makes - it drills the information down to just what they can act upon without needing them to wade through lots of supporting material. And it also can join up quite effectively lots of related documents that relate to the task they have in mind. So they're not having to look up one list over here to see if they are included in the category and another list over there. That's a challenge across government. And I think adaptive content is a really exciting opportunity. And we've been trying lots of things and we've been making mistakes and we've been learning a lot of things. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, that's led me nicely on because I was going to ask actually what are some of the challenges you've both faced in your career as content designers. Is, is it something to do with the, perhaps it's an emerging discipline, so you're working with people who are unfamiliar with what you do or what you're trying to do? Or is it something broader than that? Or yeah, what challenges have you come across when working in content design? 

 

Ben Hazell:

An interesting challenge I'm aware of at the moment is recruitment. Is how do we expand the pool of people we're bringing in as content designers? Because I did a lot of work, that was probably content design adjacent in various roles, often job titles I got to make up because professions didn't exist. And it was very late in my career in newspapers that I’ve ever heard of the term content design. And I think we can do a better job. And we're definitely doing a lot at the moment with running events. But we're trying to widen access to content design to help people who have things to offer, map what they already can do and their skills to the sorts of things we're looking for. 

 

There's quite a wide variety of skills which can blur into it, and we have colleagues with a wide variety of backgrounds, because these are overlapping skill sets, they are thinking about an audience or user need and how things can be communicated and how you can better understand people. So that's a really interesting challenge for me. How do we widen the pool from which we are drawing people in to both increase our diversity and also make sure we're getting the most skilled people we can get because it's really important work and we need we need people who are going to really thrive on it. 

 

Amanda Diamond:

Yeah, that's a really great point Ben. And as Ben said, we are we're doing quite a lot at the moment in this in this area, both, as Ben said, to bring in diverse voices, but also to bring in people from underrepresented groups into the profession.

 

There are lots of different routes into content design and the skillset is varied. And so I think, again, in the way that I think it's incumbent upon us to educate, you know, within government about the value of content design, I think we also need to think beyond government and talk to sort of a wider pool of people, wider audiences, about what content design is and how, you know, what transferable skills, skills are useful. 

 

To that end, we've been running with our UCD, user centred design colleagues, careers events and we're actually going to run a content design careers event so dedicated for content design.

 

And it's also probably worth saying as well that the actual profession, the discipline as itself, is changing. As Ben mentioned, this idea of structured content, of serving up content to people that is configured to their specific circumstances - there’s quite a big technical element to that as well. And so I think content designers of the future, I would certainly encourage them to to be more technically minded and also to look across different disciplines.

 

So, yeah, it's an exciting profession. And it's exciting time, I think, to be in content design. But it's changing as the world is around us. And so I think we need to be adapting to that and looking ahead to what the profession needs so that we can be equipped as government to continue providing, you know, excellent digital services to our citizens.

 

Laura Stevens:

And talking about new ways in which you're reaching out to people to speak about content design. I also wanted to talk about The introduction to content design course. And I've got it a clip now from our colleague, Agnieszka so I'll just play this.

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

So my name is Agnieszka Murdoch and I'm a Content Learning Designer at Government Digital Service and I'm part of the content community team.

 

Laura Stevens:

And what are some of the things you've been working on during your time over the past 8 months or so you've been in the Content Community Team?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yes, I started in January this year and basically I sort of jumped straight into working on the introduction to content design course scheduled to go live in May. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And so what is the course?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yes, Introduction to content design is basically a course hosted on FutureLearn, which is a social learning platform with approximately 12 million registered users. The introduction to content design open course that we launched in May actually had just over 11,000 learners register, which was fantastic. 

 

And it's basically an introductory course for anyone who's interested in user centred content design. We teach people about things like how to think about your users, how to do user research a little bit, how to design and kind of clearly structured easy to read accessible content, how to write in plain English. We also cover topics like evaluating the success of your content and managing the content lifecycle. So a wide range of topics. And it's basically a self-paced course, it’s divided into 4 weeks and learners can kind of do it in their own time.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mentioned there that 11,000 people did the course when it was launched in May. So who were these people? Who can do the course?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

The original pilot of the course was just for those working in government, whereas the open course that we launched in May and that we're now launching the second run of is open to anyone who's interested in content design.  

 

So this will be obviously colleagues from different government departments. There will be people working in local government as well. Other public sector organisations as well as the private sector. And we had people from lots of different places in the UK, all different nations, lots of different countries around the world. 

 

The pilot of the course was intended just for content designers, but this open course actually attracted more people than just content designers and people who have ‘content designer’ in their job title. So it's obviously for those starting out in the role. But it's also for those working in related disciplines.

 

What was also interesting was that was the range of experience among the learners on the course. So even though the course is called an Introduction to content design, we had people who were completely new to the field, but also people who are very experienced. And what we found was that it was sort of equally beneficial for those different groups, regardless of the level of experience they had. 

 

So like I said at the start, FutureLearn is a social learning platform, which means you're not just following the content of the course, but you're also expected to get involved in conversations, to complete tasks, to answer questions and to interact with other learners. And that's part of the learning.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I also saw on FutureLearn you received a 4.5* review from the learners. And so can you talk a bit more through about people's response to the course? Was there anything particularly that went well or anything that needed improvement? And perhaps has that changed as the course has gone from pilot to first opening and now to the second one?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yes. So we got, we got quite a lot of feedback actually from that first open run, which we did in May. And the second iteration of that we’re working on at the moment is going to be addressing some of those feedback points. So what people really enjoyed were the interactions with other learners, so being able to kind of share experiences, but also read about other people's context. Yeah, the social interactions between learners was something that we got a lot of positive feedback on. 

 

Also, the fact that we conveyed the content through stories rather than just telling people the rules or sharing the theory of content design. I think that was a very important aspect of why people, why learners potentially benefited from the course. Also, the variety of content so FutureLearn is a platform that allows you to add different types of content to it, such as video, audio, articles, polls, quizzes. So I think the variety of content really was a great thing because sometimes it can be quite tedious if you're just going through a self-paced course that just has video or just has articles.

 

And in terms of improvements, we had some feedback on actually accessibility. There was one task that we included that wasn't accessible because it involved highlighting things in green and red. And if you know anything about the basics of accessibility, you will know that that's not very helpful for people with kind of accessibility, certain types of accessibility needs. So that was, that was a mistake that we're correcting. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I also wanted to talk about it being an online learning course, which has always been the case since it’s development back in 2019. Of course given the developments of 2020 with coronavirus and a move of lots of things to remote working or remote learning, but why were you thinking about online back in 2019?

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

So the main reason, so that kind of if we go back to the pilot, the reason why the pilot was designed was to address some of the kind of practical challenges with running face-to-face training. 

 

So things like obviously the cost. The fact that the trainers would have to go, travel around the country and go to each face-to-face session, kind of separately, train the people there. It costs a lot to travel. It costs, it takes up a lot of time. But also, I think another challenge of face-to-face learning is that you only have access to those people who are in the room at the time the training is happening. Which means that you're not really able to share ideas or generate new ideas as effectively as as you are if you're doing things online and opening it up to thousands of people. The practical kind of challenges and the challenge of sharing were the 2 main reasons.

 

So just to give you some numbers, like I said, we had about 11,500 people enrolled and we were actually only expecting 2,400 because that was the mean number of sign ups in that specific course category on FutureLearn. We had 18,500 comments. So as you can see, this is quite an overwhelming number for a moderator or somebody who's even reading those comments as a participant. But it shows the kind of how active the discussions were and how active the learners were and how much knowledge was shared. 

 

Sixty-seven per cent of those learners were active learners, which means they completed a step and 26% were social learners, which means they commented at least once. So, again, you know, if you're running face-to-face training, you can't expect every single person to contribute. There isn't enough time for that. And also, the different kind of learning styles that people have don't always allow for that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So yeah, I want to talk about this - the September opening of the course, which starts on the 21 September. And so if I'm hearing you speak about it, and I’m really excited to hear more. How do I sign up? 

 

Agnieszka Murdoch:

Yeah so if you want to join the course, you can keep an eye on the GDS Blog. We will be blogging about how we built the course and how we sort of iterated it. And there will be a link there to sign up. But if you're too impatient and you don’t want to wait for the blog posts, then you can go on FutureLearn and you can search for it there, it's called Introduction to content design.

 

The course is perfect for anyone who is starting out in content design or who is thinking about moving into content design or anyone who kind of already works with content and feels that their work could benefit from learning more about content design. 

 

Ben Hazell:

Yeah, so the thing that put me in mind of was the content design is a set of job titles and a role within the government digital jobs framework. So there's a nice clear job track that you can join. But it is also a set of practises. It's a set of methodologies and a mindset so I think it's a really valuable skill set even if you don't intend to become a titled ‘content designer’. I think you can apply it in lots of ways and this is a great opportunity to dip your toe into those waters. 

 

Amanda Diamond:

And for me, I am just astonished at the number of people who signed up and who are interested and also the number of folks who completed the course as well. And just the level of social interaction that Agnieszka spoke about there. I mean, that is fantastic. 

 

And I think for me as well, it's just about the reach. You know, an online course like this that can scale to this extent would, is, is, is, is the only way we can reach all of those people from different backgrounds, different, you know, different skill sets. And we would never be able to reach that number of people and that volume of people around the world as well if we were just doing face-to-face training. 

 

Ben Hazell:

And most importantly, it can be taken at the user’s own pace and in their own time - they can go back over things, they can expand in particular areas of interest. And I think when you have engaged and willing learners, that becomes a very effective opportunity. And I used to do a lot of in-person training for GDS on content design, but obviously with a reach of more like 12 people a day rather than 10,000. It was always hard with a classroom full of people to meet each of their individual needs and to find a pace that wasn't leaving people behind. And it was also not kind of losing the engagement of the people who were running ahead. And that's where this adaptive content in these online courses can really excel. And I think are really interesting examples of that sort of personalisation of content to people's minute by minute needs and requirements. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes, for sure. And as Agnieszka said, there will be a link to the course on the GDS Blog if you’re interested. And so that's all for today, so thank you both so much for joining me, and to Agnieszka too. 

 

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. 

 

So yeah, thank you both again. 

 

Ben Hazell:

Thank you.

 

Amanda Diamond:

Thanks Laura, thanks for having me having us.

Government Digital Service Podcast #21: The DDaT Fast Stream at GDS

Government Digital Service Podcast #21: The DDaT Fast Stream at GDS

July 30, 2020

Vanessa Schneider: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast.

 

My name is Vanessa Schneider and I am Senior Channels and Community Manager at GDS. Like last month's episode, this one will also be recorded via Hangouts as we're all remote working right now. We're going to be talking about the Digital, Data and Technology Fast Stream experience at GDS. The Digital, Data and Technology Fast Stream, also known as the DDaT Fast Stream for short, is one of 15 different schemes on the Civil Service Fast Stream. Applicants can choose up to 4 scheme preferences when they apply. As a DDaT Fast Streamer you're participating in a four year scheme with both six month long and year-long placements.

 

GDS is one of the organisations in which Fast Streamers are placed. So we will be hearing from colleagues across GDS with experience of being on the DDaT scheme.

 

Clare Robinson

I'm Clare Robinson. I'm a Fast Stream Performance Analyst working on GOV.UK. So that means that I look at the performance data that we have available and try to understand what it is that users are trying to do on GOV.UK, where they're going and what it is we need to do to make their journeys better.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you think that the Fast Stream has lived up to what your expectation was before you applied? 

 

Clare Robinson: 

What I've really loved about working for government is the fact that people don't have another option, like there is no, there's nobody else that can give you a passport. We have to do it. And that confers on us a really different expectation because we can't ever decide that something is too hard. We have to do the best we can for everybody. And that was probably the thing that really defied my expectations. I came in thinking that it would be all about implementing government policy. And actually some of that is true. But most of it is about providing citizens with things that they need from government. And that's really a different mindset, perhaps, than I really expected to have. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind going a little bit into detail about the different placements that you've had before arriving at GDS?

 

Clare Robinson: 

So I started as a delivery manager in Bristol working on licencing and permitting services. My role was to make sure that we were delivering those projects on time when we needed to. So I learnt a lot from that, I learnt a lot about agile, so how to manage people in a really productive and sort of continuously improving way. And I learnt a lot about myself, like what I how I work, what I like, what I find more challenging. That led me to my next placement where I went to the Department of Transport to be a User Researcher. And that was really great 'cause I was working on a whole just a massive range of projects.

 

And then I got to go on a secondment. So this is sort of an interesting feature of the Fast Stream is that you can go out to, often to charities or other partners. But I actually chose to go out to industry 'cause that was like I really wanted to take that opportunity just to see how digital services work from kind of a more commercial side. And so I got to go and be a Co-creationion Consultant at Fujitsu. And the kind of work I was doing that was really interesting because I was running what are called design-thinking workshops, which are very much, very much in some ways follow some of the user-centred principles that we have in government, and in GDS - it's all about starting like what do users need?

 

It was really interesting to see how a sort of commercial enterprise used user-centred thinking and design-thinking to sort of challenge both themselves, and the customers that they working with to kind of co-create like solutions to complicated business problems. So that was that was really interesting.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

We often hear that GDS has that perception of being different to the other sort of areas of Whitehall. Have you found that to bear out?

 

Clare Robinson: 

I think the biggest difference, I think, is how how much acceptance people have of kind of agile methodologies, and sort of uncertainty. I think we have to embrace the unknowns and we have to embrace the idea that we're not going to get things perfect the first time round.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I was wondering, is there anything that you would change about your experience so far?

 

Clare Robinson: 

There’s quite an emphasis on leadership and leading teams, but I think that that can sometimes, people who are perhaps more introverted, who perhaps have more technical skills, I think that can leave them behind or leave them with a sense that they're not doing the right thing. I think that I've been really lucky that I've had two really fantastic managers on the Fast Stream who have really helped me understand that that's not the case, and actually that leadership looks really, really different in different places. But I think that sometimes the Fast Stream can put quite a lot of emphasis on showing rather than doing, and I think there are people that are working to change that. 

 

And I think particularly I've been thinking about like what, when we talk about leadership, we often have a model in our mind. And that model is often, often white, it's often male, it's often went to a Russell Group university. And I think that that is a model that we all need to challenge.

 

Jordan Testo: 

Hi. I'm Jordan Testo. I'm a DDaT Fast Streamer currently placed at GDS, working in the EU Transition and Future Relationships Team as the Digital Portfolio Coordination Advisor. Previously I've worked as a, a Product Owner on the tax platform at HMRC. I've worked as a Service Manager at the Home Office and I've been a Programme Delivery Manager at the Ministry of Defence working in Cyber Defence. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And what caused you to apply to be on the Fast Stream? 

 

Jordan Testo: 

Finishing university, I fancied a challenge. I previously did an industrial placement in the Home Office whilst at university, and I thought, I want to go into the Civil Service. So why not give the Fast Stream a go and develop my leadership skills and see what I can do?

 

So I'm currently coming towards the end of my second year. Currently the DDaT scheme is four years. So I've got another two placements - so the first two years are six month roles, switching every six months, and then the final two years are two year-long posts. So come October, I will be leaving GDS to another department, which as of yet is unknown to me. We find out in about three weeks, four weeks’ time where we'll be moving on to. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: Do you get any choice in that matter or is it very much predetermined?

 

Jordan Testo: 

We get preference forms, so we put in the departments which we want to go to work for, job roles around the DDaT Framework and other areas that we want to develop personally as well. And all those developmental points are looked into as well as what previous job roles I've done. And the matching team then put, match me to a place in which they think benefits me the most in what I want to get out. 

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Is it different working at GDS compared to other departments?  

 

Jordan Testo: 

GDS, it is a total different way of working. It's a lot more accessible, there's a lot more openness in terms of the software we can use, the types of communication methods. But GDS is just, it's such a different place. And what I quite like about it is there's less of a hierarchy as such. Everyone works together to get the job done rather than some of the departments I've been in where it's quite hierarchical. But yeah, I quite enjoy this. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Yeah, so obviously it's great to hear that you're having a positive experience at GDS, and with the fast stream. But are there things that you've sort of found a bit more challenging? 

 

Jordan Testo: 

The challenging element of the Fast Stream is moving around every six months. It's been hard for me to let go of some departments, mainly because of the work I've been working on, and I start, I get to the midpoint where we've got a really important milestone or got to important sprint and then I have to go, and I never see the result and not seeing the fruits of their labour as such. Hence why I’m looking forward to having the year-long posts.

 

And I think if someone asked me, what do you think of the Fast Stream, I say, just do it. Apply. See how it goes, because it's just totally worth it. I think that even if you don't get onto it, the application process is really interesting and a really good experience to do. If you get onto it, the Civil Service and the public sector world is open to you. You have a chance to go around different departments, work on different programmes, work with different people in different subject areas, and you build up such a knowledge of overall government - it's, it's priceless, really.

 

Maxwell Reiss: 

My name is Maxwell Reiss. I'm a Product Manager on the GOV.UK programme, and I'm on the Civil Service Digital Fast Stream.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you are currently a Fast Streamer or have you finished the Fast Stream?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I am still currently a Fast Streamer. But I am, I am very much an outgoing Fast Streamer. I'm in my third year of the programme and I've just recently, within the last couple of weeks, been offered a permanent role at GDS.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Well, congratulations to the job offer. Is it normal for a Fast Streamer to be offered a job before the scheme finishes?

 

Maxwell Riess:

It does happen. It is, it is very, it is normal. Yeah, I'll go as far as to say it's normal. I think of my cohort, there were about 60 of us that started in year one, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed digital Fast Streamers. And I think of that there are probably less than half that are still on the scheme.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Would you mind telling us a little bit about the placements that you had previously? 

 

Maxwell Riess: 

So way back in September of 2000, was it 17, I started my very first placement on the Fast Stream in DWP Digital in the Portfolio Team. And this was a quite surprising placement to get. It actually wasn't what I was expecting at all because I was working in a private office role supporting a Deputy Director of the digital portfolio. I have had roles in HMRC working on digital services for collecting environmental taxes. I had a role working at the Department for International Trade, working in content on their Brexit transition. So, so I worked on, on policies and content for the public at DIT. And I previously had a role at GDS even before this one. I worked at GDS in GOV.UK in a, in another kind of content capacity, working on what we call mainstream, which is the kind of most popular content on GOV.UK itself and then I came back, I came back to GOV.UK after my last one at DIT.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Were you aware of GDS before you joined the DDaT Fast Stream?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I, I was, actually. Yeah, I am. I tragically was a bit of a fan of.

 

Vanessa Schneider:

Oh! Don't apologise. 

 

Maxwell Riess: 

GOV.UK and of, of, of GDS. I just, you know, kind of struck me as a great a great thing, a good website, a place - and I worked, I did work in digital before joining the Civil Service in the private sector. And it always struck me, guess partly call it good storytelling, branding, propaganda, that that GDS was somewhere that was doing digital and agile well, you know, that it was, that this is where one could go to actually experience these techniques put into action in an effective way. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind telling me a little bit about what led you to applying to the DDaT Fast Stream?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

For me, it was very, very directly about wanting to work in the public sector for the public good. I got into technology because I was interested in, I guess, the power of new tools to like shape society and and create the modern world. So I knew I wanted to work in that area. And having had time in the private sector, I became more and more interested in devoting my efforts to something that was going to be for everyone's benefit. And because of the, because of the good that I think can be done there, but also because of the risk as well. I think you know government services still in so many places have a reputation for not being as good. And I think in order to build public trust in our society, we need to have services that people feel like are really high quality. And yeah, I wanted to, to lend my effort to do that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you've obviously had a really good experience in the Fast Stream and at GDS, but were there some challenges that you faced? 

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I've said this to other people who are thinking about the Fast Stream and people who are in it who are struggling, by far, the best thing about the Fast Stream is its variability. The amount of different roles you can kind of gain experience in the different interactions you can get, the different circumstances and problems, spaces you'll get exposed to. That's all incredibly beneficial. But also it comes with a huge amount of variance and risk. And so I think that the challenges are all around whether or not you can deal with a slightly, ultimately, you can do you can do anything for six months. I think. And and really, it's about it's temporary. So it's about what you're going to get out of it. And if you think you can get something really valuable out of it, then it's worth sticking with. If not, then you need to be able to be a squeaky wheel and complain and kick up a fuss. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

That sounds like a lot of food for thought, then would you change anything if you had the opportunity to do what you wanted?

 

Maxwell Riess: 

I mean, the Fast Stream itself is constantly changing like it is, it is really, you know because Fast Streamers are young and, and they've got ideas. They’re constantly giving feedback on the programme. And I think it can and should change. 

 

Daniel Owens: 

My name is Daniel Owens and I work as a Corporate Insight Lead at GDS.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Did you always know you wanted to apply to the DDaT Fast Stream, or where did that decision come from for you?

 

Daniel Owens: 

Well, I think I think I'm quite an unusual case in the sense that I'm probably a fair bit older than a lot of the other Fast Streamers. I know that the Fast Stream is becoming, it was originally created as a graduate scheme but increasingly it's becoming more of a developmental scheme. I decided to change careers and I was particularly interested in the tech sector. I thought that that is the most exciting and innovative area going forward. But also, I wanted to have meaningful and purposeful for work and feel that I was contributing to something rather than just the bottom line. And I've been particularly happy that I've been placed at GDS, the Government Digital Service, because of their excellent reputation. I have friends in the private sector and they all know about GDS. They know GOV.UK has a very good reputation around the world and in the private sector in terms of producing quality products. So I was quite excited to get this placement. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So knowing what you know now, what kind of advice do you have to somebody who's considering applying to the DDaT Scheme?

 

Daniel Owens: 

It's a tough question. In answering that, I would say, I think that my trajectory as an older, older starter is I would give different advice for an older person compared to a younger person. Because I think if you're straight out of uni or, you know, got just a couple of years of work experience, you're you're still sort of learning the world of work and like learning how to interact in that in that environment and what works for you and what doesn't. So, your sort of, your approach, I think, would be a bit different.

For the son-if, for someone who's older, starting on the DDaT scheme, I would say first things first would be to work out what the key trajectories are, where the key roles are that you could go into, and from day one start thinking about to what extent they fit what you want to do and testing it all the time, like kind of, almost kind of like an agile approach, like a prototype, like going and meeting people.

Vanessa Schneider: 

And is there anything you would change about your experience? 

 

Daniel Owens: 

I think, one thing that and this is advice I've got from a lot of Fast Streamers who are further along, is if the postings not working for you or you don't feel like you're doing the kind of work that is going to develop you, then you should push back and you should you should try and own the role and make the role. I mean, you know, there's going to be some mundane work that you're gonna have to do. It's inevitable. But you should also try and search for opportunities to do innovative, interesting things. And don't be afraid to approach people about that. 

 

James Lovatt

Hi, I'm James Lovatt. I'm one of the Assistant Private Secretaries in the Director General's Private Office at GDS. And I'm on the Fast Stream. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

To start us off. It'd be great to learn from you why you thought you wanted to apply to the DDaT Fast Stream. 

 

James Lovatt: 

So I applied for Fast Stream. I think ultimately for my own personal development. I found the previously I spent eight years working in the NGO sector. But I was really struggling to break through those digital marketing roles into more leadership positions. So I wanted to see how the Digital, Data and Technology Fast Stream could open up that world a bit wider for me, to, to see how the other ways of using digital technology to make an impact in the world.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So your placement at GDS, what stage are you at in your placements? 

 

James Lovatt: 

So I've been on the Fast Stream for two years now. I've been in London for the last 12 months and with GDS for the last six months specifically. This is my fourth posting. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind sharing what you've been doing in the Fast Stream so far, what your previous placements were about? 

 

James Lovatt: 

Yes, sure. So I joined two years ago. I started off with HMRC in a very technical team as a DevOps Product Team Lead. It's one of those where you kind of just get thrown in the deep end and you figure it out as you go along. But there was some really good people around me who helped in that journey. And then I moved up to Edinburgh to work in Scottish government as a Business Analyst where we were trying to onboard, or starting the process of onboarding, Office 365 to that 15,000 odd users. And then I moved down to London to work with DEFRA in a more data focussed role. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And your role right now is as Assistant Private Secretary, you mentioned, right?

 

James Lovatt: 

Correct. Yes. So I'm an APS in a team of about four people for Alison Pritchard. There's two APS's and then there's a private secretary and the head of private office. For me, this is has been the posting which has been most well suited to my career aspirations. I think I came in March just as the budget was being considered. And then within a couple of weeks, COVID also hit. So it also was a very insightful way to see how rapidly government can respond to a crisis, and how many services that GDS personally stood up as well to to make that an effective response. I'm fortunate that I've just found out that it's being extended. So I will be staying here for probably another 12 months as my third year posting as well. So it should hopefully give me some depth into what Private Offices can do. I enjoy seeing how senior leaders make their decisions and the influence and the end result of of that. So within six months, I've started to see the start of that process. But hopefully now I'll start to see the middle and end of some of those processes which I've been privy to so far.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

I'm so pleased to hear that that got extended. I was wondering if there was anything you would change about your Fast Stream experience or about the Fast Stream in general if there’s something you've noticed that could be improved?

 

James Lovatt: 

I have had a good experience, but a lot of it's been in hindsight. At the time, it never necessarily felt that every posting was enjoyable for different reasons. But I think that's, because they were challenging me. So it meant that I was going through that growth, which was what I was initially seeking when I came on to the Fast Stream. I would poss-possibly change just how big sometimes the leap is between those and particularly with a six month postings, they don't let you get too grounded.

 

I think the thing that I would change about it is, is some of the changes are already happening around diversity and inclusion. So I think my scheme intake in 2018 is reported on in media as not being very diverse. And that's something which I'm not particularly proud to be a part of that statistic. But it is something that drives the work that I do. So even working with Alison in Private Office, it, it's, it's been interesting to see how we can influence the future of the Fast Stream. And particularly in the last couple of years, a lot of those areas have been improving anyway, but I think there's always a lot further to go in there. There'll be unknowns as well in the future that we're not even thinking about right now. So trying to be ahead of a curve in that respect, in terms of inclusion and diversity rather than just catching up is what I'd like to change about the scheme.

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Hi, I'm Jenny Sleeman and I'm a Delivery Manager for the GOV.UK PaaS Team in GDS. So PaaS is Platform as a Service. So we are part of TechOps and Reliability Engineering. So our, our team has a platform that then other government services can host their services on our platform. And we look after kind of the security and the management of that platform, kind of providing backend services for all of our tenants. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

As this is our Fast Stream episode, are you doing this role as part of a Fast Stream placement or are you now a graduate of this Fast Stream?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

I'm a graduate of the Fast Stream. So I graduated from the Fast Stream a couple of years ago. My my last Fast Stream posting was actually at GDS. So I have been a Fast Streamer at GDS as well. But I'm now back at GDS. So yeah, seen it from both sides really. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind telling us about your choice to apply for the DDaT Fast Stream?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

So I applied because I, I suppose I thought it was the most kind of interesting Fast Stream scheme. I was quite keen to pursue a career in the civil service. And I was I was interested in the digital side of things. I was working at Department for Education at the time and kind of we were having a think about some digital projects. So I was I was quite keen to sort of learn more really and try all the different postings.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind taking us through the postings that you went through?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

So my first posting was with Ministry of Defence and I worked for the Navy in Portsmouth. So that was that was very, very different from kind of any of the jobs I'd had before that point. So I started my Fast Stream journey in MOD. And then I also had a posting in HMRC, a secondment out to the NHS, which was brilliant. And then also a six month posting at the Home Office. And then for the one year long postings, I worked for BEIS for one year and then GDS for my final year on the scheme. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So you've been on a secondment. Do you mind telling me what that was like, whether there was a discernible difference to working for a civil service organisation compared to the NHS?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Yeah, it was brilliant. In some ways, it was, it was probably the most interesting posting I had because it was so different to what I'd known in the civil service.

 

It, it, I suppose it felt a lot more operational to some of the civil service postings I'd had because we were literally based in, in some offices in a hospital in London. So, you know, you were I felt so much closer to that kind of frontline, frontline workers, and your day to day activities could vary so much from kind of things that would be more similar to my role now kind of, you know, reporting in business cases, but then you could also find yourself actually going into one of the wards in the hospital and speaking to the family of patient, for example, if their surgery had had to be cancelled at short notice and kind of really trying to kind of reassure that that patient's family and the patient themselves. I have the utmost respect for people that work for the NHS because, yeah, it is it is a tough job, I think. Very tough. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Are you still in touch with other members of your cohort?

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Yes, I am. Again, that's one that's one of the really, really nice things about the Fast Stream that you you start it with this cohort. And you're obviously always at the same point as them. So kind of when you rotate from one posting to another, you kind of have, you know, all of the chat about how has your first week gone? How are you finding things? Yeah, kind of that support was really important throughout the Fast Stream. And it's just really nice to see that the direction that different people have gone off in and kind of obviously some have stayed in government, some work outside government now. But yeah, it's really nice to have that group of people.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

And do you think that you had a different experience going into the Fast Stream because you were already an employee of the civil service? 

 

Jenny Sleeman: 

Possibly. I think I suppose the benefit to me was that I had a year of I suppose understanding how government worked a little bit from working for Department for Education. So I had some kind of prior experience. But as I say, because some of the postings are just so different, you kind of you know, you can work in one department and and working for another department is very, very different. So, yeah, I think if you already work for the civil service, there can be some benefits. But yeah, there's, there's, there's also no problem going in when you haven't worked for the civil service before. 

 

Lewis Dunne: 

Hi everyone. So my name is Lewis Dunne. I'm a Senior Technology Policy Adviser here at GDS. I sit within the Technology Policy Team and my role is focussed on researching, advising, briefing and producing guidance on ways to improve cross-government use of tech. And on top of that, I'm also a former DDaT Fast Streamer. I’m a bit fresh off the scheme, so I left and starting work at GDS in mid-March of this year - I was in the third year of the scheme when I left.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

So if you don't mind us casting back your mind to the beginnings of the GDS Fast Stream. I know it's not as long ago as some people who've completed the scheme, but I was wondering if you could share with us why you considered applying.

 

Lewis Dunne: 

Yeah. So that there were a couple of different reasons. I applied in October 2016. At the time I was studying for a diploma in legal practise up in Scotland. I'd most enjoyed working on things that were linked to like public and administrative law, and I think I saw the Fast Stream as a better way of offering a route to be able to work in that broader area of public services a lot more. And certainly the idea of being able to contribute to improving public services felt far more real and more interesting to me than a lot of the more dry stuff that I was studying at the time.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

The law to data, digital and technology, that seems like a bit of a jump. Was there anything that had prepared you for that?

 

Lewis Dunne: 

Yeah. No, it's a good point. So bit of context as well - I do come from a bit of a techie background: as a child, I was very into building websites, continued that at uni. My dad is a telecoms engineer. His dad helped build planes. And just before applying really in the year before my studies, I'd also been working on a research project that was trying to build a database of sort of peace agreements to allow them to be compared. And that was a really interesting use of what was a really interesting ability to actually see a digital system in a different way, helping to analyse a real world problem. So, so my head was very much still in that space.

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you mind telling me about your first placements? 

 

Lewis Dunne: 

So I've worked in a number of different places. So five placements in total. They've all actually had a bit of an international flavour, I suppose. I started off at Department for International Trade, working as a content designer on an export licencing programme. I then moved over to the Foreign Office where I was a product owner for their telecom system. I worked at the Department for Transport as a cyber security policy analyst, then back to GDS as a tech policy analyst. And then finally, just before this, I was working at the Department for International Development up in East Kilbride as a product owner, helping with their development data publishing. To some extent of a lot of my roles have been because I've been quite willing just to get my hands dirty and get involved in a lot of different things and also being willing just to be moved around a bit. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

You brought the scheme to an early end by accepting a job offer. Was there anything that you sort of feel like you've missed out on because you've exited the scheme early?

 

Lewis Dunne: 

I mean, the whole thing about the scheme is that it is designed to get people to a stage of feeling like they are empowered and that they can go and make decisions and and lead, because I guess primarily as a leadership scheme, it's about getting, building us up as people. And when I compare where I am now and how I feel and how I act, everything like that to the to the timid, shy guy that walks into DIT back in I guess, like mid 2017, I have I had developed a lot as a person by the time I applied for this role at GDS, so I felt ready in that regard.

 

Vanessa Schneider: Do you wish that you'd changed anything about your experience in the Fast Stream? I know, for instance, some people have gone on secondments to other public sector organisations or charities or even private sector companies.

 

Lewis Dunne: 

I don't think there's any of my experiences on the Fast Stream that I'd want to give up or trade in for something else. I don't feel like any of the things was like a needless waste of time or anything or like not a waste of time, but, you know, was could be swapped out. So it's difficult to look back. And I think in terms of thinking about how we change things over the course of the Fast Stream, there's just a big angle about, you know, you develop so much as a person over those several years of being put into all of these different positions that if I was in different roles, I probably would have handled problems differently, and people acted with people differently in some areas. But I guess that's just part of, you know, learning and growing as a person more generally. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Gosh, that got very philosophical.

 

Lewis Dunne: 

I remember my cohort leader asking me about that. And she had suggested that I go on a secondment and that would have been, I guess, in place of my time at GDS, and I think actually my time I spent GDS helped me identify an organisation that I really I really liked, I really liked the culture and that I wanted to work in more. So if I've had lost that, I guess I would have gained something different. But I think it's, it's helped me get to where I am now. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Do you think that it was good coming into the Fast Stream out of academia, or do you think that it makes a difference? Or is it just such a scheme that it doesn't matter what your previous knowledge is, you kind of start from ground zero? 

 

Lewis Dunne: 

It's, it's is a really interesting point, because I guess one of the things that I've developed a lot over the last couple years, but I think part of that has just been all these like different experiences, because it's it's kind of like how you imagined the people in Love Island must feel, you know. For you looking in, it looks like it's only a week but I think for them it feels like a year kind of thing. And I think a lot of postings feel a bit like that. You're only there for several months, but it can feel like a very long period of time for you. 

 

And so it does help you build up a lot of experiences and to help me build up a lot of experiences and get a lot of different. It's almost equivalent of doing, you know, like five different mini jobs in the space of, like a couple of years. And I think all of those contributions helped me develop. So I guess if maybe if I'd come into a bit like older and stuff than I might have had a bit more of like a solid base to start with. So, yeah, I, I think it is one of these things where by just so it can be both useful coming from academia and you know, it's also very useful to come in with a broader knowledge of it. I'm sure that will give you a huge leg up. And if people are thinking about like a change of role or a change of like career and things, I think, you know, in terms of getting like a crash course in digital in government, the Fast Stream is a great way of getting that. 

 

Vanessa Schneider: 

Thank you so much to all of our guests for coming on today. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #20: Celebrating 2 years of the Local Digital Declaration

Government Digital Service Podcast #20: Celebrating 2 years of the Local Digital Declaration

June 29, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer at GDS. And today we’re going to be talking about the Local Digital Declaration. This is a set of guiding principles that help support local authorities, of all sizes and capabilities, to deliver great digital services and platforms that meet the needs of their users. And since it launched 2 years ago, 223 public sector organisations have signed up to it. 

 

And to tell me more about the work the declaration has done is Lisa Jeffrey and May-N Leow. So welcome both to the podcast, please could you tell me who you are, where you work and how you’re involved with the Local Digital Declaration. 

 

Lisa Jeffery:

So yeah, I'm Lisa Jeffery. I'm a Regional Relationship Manager for Government Digital Service, GDS, I'm based in Leeds. And we're here to help open doors and raise awareness of the support that's available from GDS and to connect people where it's beneficial to do so to support digital transformation. I started working at GDS in May 2018, and that's just a couple months before the Local Digital Declaration launched in July 2018, and I've been involved ever since then really over the last 2 years. 

 

May-N Leow:

Hi everyone. I’m May-N Leow, and Head of the Local Digital Collaboration Unit. So almost a year now at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government [MHCLG], and yeah, Lisa is a fantastic champion of, of the declaration and we love working with her and GDS.

 

So I’ve actually seen it from both sides. So when I was working in the council in Southwark, we were co-signatories of the declaration, we also applied for the funds - so I have that perspective of what it feels like to be in the council. So yeah, it’s been really fantastic seeing it from both sides of, of the pond.

 

Laura Stevens:

So I described the Local Digital Declaration briefly in the introduction. But I’d like to hear a bit more about it. It’s a set of 5 principles - could we talk through them?

 

May-N Leow:

So it's, it’s, as you say kind of Laura, it’s, we’ve got 5 principles in the declaration, and it's based around the GDS Service Manual as well as the Technology Code of Practice. 

 

But the key things for us is that obviously we want users and citizens need to be first when you know, designing a system and offering good local services. And the second one is around fixing the plumbing - so we want to fix the hard, complex problems. It's not very sexy but it's completely vital for delivering good services. And then we want to design safe, secure and useful ways of sharing information and data and that's even more critical from COVID and what we've learned in the crisis response. And then the fourth one is to kind of demonstrate leadership in creating the conditions for genuine organisational transformation, making sure that it can actually happen. And then lastly, working in the open whenever we can so as many people can learn from, from each other. 

 

So those are kind of, the 5 principles we have in the declaration.

 

Laura Stevens:

So the Local Digital Declaration is a joint initiative from GDS and MHCLG. And can you describe for me who is it for? 

 

Lisa Jeffery:

 

So it's aimed primarily at local authorities and other public sector organisations that meet the requirements of signing the Local Digital Declaration. 

 

I think the Local Digital Declaration is a, is a great example of what can be achieved if, if we all work together. It's co-written by 45 different organisations, so it's really about shared ambition for the future of public services in the internet age. And it's now been signed by 223 different organisations.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you describe some of the councils who have signed it? Sort of, are they big councils, are they small councils, who’s signed up?

 

May-N Leow:

I think it's all across the board. So we have obviously your big city, metropolitan kind of councils right through to your county and district councils. Obviously there are other organisations, other than councils, that have signed up to the declaration, so we're pretty much approaching that three quarter mark of, of all councils in England, which is you know, great and shows the level of ambition that, that councils are, are showcasing in terms of wanting to deliver like modern, amazing services to, to their citizens and community. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I know you, both of you referenced this in the introduction, I wanted to go back in time a bit, looking back to 2018 because it's obviously its 2 year birthday coming up very shortly. So could you tell me, perhaps Lisa from the GDS point of view and May-N from when you were working Southwark Council point of view, why was the Local Digital Declaration created?

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. And, and I would say certainly being on the other side when the Declaration was being created, it was, it was, the need born out from it's kind of like a place, one place can state what does good look like for local services and what the ambition looks like for local services? And certainly in, again, in, in Southwark, I used it as a mechanism to drive forward a lot of things that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise - so saying here's the declaration, we’ve committed to it, you know other organisations have committed to it and this is the bar that we should try to kind of meet. So using that to say you know, we need to have user research, we need to do-build services in that user-centered way. 

 

Again I could not have done without the Declaration, without kind of the Local Digital Fund. So certainly being a council officer, having something like that, it's just such a powerful mechanism to not only showcase what's possible, what we should be doing but then, but then also sort of say to senior management, this is what we're committing to so let's do it.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

And at the beginning as well, we did, we did some roadshows. I think it was really important that we got out and about around the country when, when we could, and that we could understand each other and work together across local and national government. 

 

Laura Stevens:

You mentioned there about the roadshows, and you mentioned there about how you, it showed you what good looked like specifically for local councils, how important was that creation and collaboration between local and central government?

 

May-N Leow:

I mean, I-I think it was crucial to make something like this actually work, because you, you need both perspectives of organisations from a council side, what central government is trying to achieve, and other organisations like LGA [Local Government Association] as well, that kind of fed into the, the declaration.

 

So it's, it’s not really that MHCLG kind of holds the declaration or is responsible for it, we're just kind of like keeping it for, for the sector at this point in time. And it's very much like a shared commitment and an ownership of, of the declaration. So I think it was really crucial that it was co-written and co-published.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah I-I think I'd agree. As in there's, there's, it's more like a movement of course, than a mandate. So I think we're all on a journey to improve public services and to make things better for people fundamentally - so collaboration and building capability and community and being human centered and understanding how we are connected, are all enablers to that goal really. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And Lisa, so can you explain a bit about your role as a Regional Relationship Manager? Because I know since you've been here for 2 years, you’ve made about, over 40 visits in person to councils?

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yep. So as a Regional Relationship Manager for the Government Digital Service, GDS, based in Leeds, we’re here to sort of open doors to GDS, raise awareness of the support that's available from GDS and to connect people where it's beneficial to support digital transformation. And since the launch of the Local Digital Declaration, I’ve made 40 visits in person to local authorities and I've also met with many more local authorities through communities and events like LocalGovCamp, where the Local Digital Declaration had a launch.

 

It's been really helpful to connect with local authorities and to learn with them and to visit them in their own context. And I've seen the value of that and joining up services, people and places to act as an enabler for collaboration.

 

Laura Stevens:

May-N, I know your team is the Local Digital Collaboration Unit. Can you talk about your work there and also how you saw it from the other side at Southwark?

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. So currently we've got a number of projects that we're funding via the Local Digital Fund. 

 

So we’re funding basically projects to solve common challenges that councils have. So we're currently in round 4 of our funding, so we do it in a stage kind of way, and some of the rounds are open so councils can apply with completely new challenges or new ideas, and some of our rounds are closed - those ones, those rounds are to allow our funded projects to kind of progress to, to the next stage.

 

So we've actually funded 23 projects so far and 100 distinct councils have actually worked collaboratively together on those projects - so we've, we've definitely shown via the fund that you know councils can actually come together and work on common challenges. And like to be completely frank, I, when, when I was still there, I was a bit dubious about this myself, ‘cause everyone knows it's hard - like yeah, everyone wants to kind of share and collaborate together but you know, everyone's got their own day jobs, it takes time, it takes you know resources to actually do collaborative working. 

 

So with, with the fund, it actually managed to bring councils together that we wouldn't have necessarily work together before. So for example, when we were running the housing repairs project in Southwark, we had Lincoln, Gravesham and Lewisham working with Southwark. And we didn't have a relationship from a housing repair side before, but because that was a priority problem for those councils, we actually came together and it worked! 

 

So I think it kind of demonstrates that when those problems are you know, unique but a priority to certain councils, councils will come together to, to solve those common challenges. So I think that's the great thing we've actually seen and proven is that, that is possible as long as we remove and de-risk a lot of those barriers to collaborative working. So obviously that's why we offer the funds so that you know councils with really stretched budgets are not using kind of like their own money and, and resources to actually solve those challenges. And some of these problems are really big for, for just one council to solve. 

 

Lisa Jeffery:

It's been super helpful I think to connect and to learn alongside with local authorities and going to visit them in their context through my visits, and I've seen the value in cross-organisational sort of connections and to join up services, people and places to, to enable the collaboration.  

 

I think it's really helpful what the, what the Local Digital Declaration is doing to sort of highlight the good work that councils are doing, and finding those assets that we can build on together and it's also helping create that space for the people and organisations to create their own value within, within that space. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And this has sort of preempted my next bit of question, because I was gonna ask about what has it allowed to happen over the 2 years.

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. I guess that, that bit about demonstrating the willingness and the ambition in council. So when the Local Digital Fund was first announced and we'd launched the first round, we had 389 expressions of interest which was amazing, and the majority of the ideas were all really sound.

 

And I think that, that bit about, what Lisa was saying, on the amplifying the great work that is happening - most councils just don't have the time to kind of blog and write about the amazing things that they're doing, and a lot of the times they don't think it's amazing. 

 

So I think the, the sharing and the learning from each other can't, can’t be underrated - it's, it's so important, whether they're funded projects or not funded projects, I think it's really important to get all these different approaches out so people can say, ‘yeah that works, that will work for me’, or ‘no I can actually just tweak this kind of approach’, so they're not starting from zero. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think one thing as well, in terms of not starting from zero, we've seen the increased use of common components across local government. Pete Herlihy, in last month's podcast, said we do have nearly as many service teams in local government using GOV.UK Notify as we do in central government. And so, and things like GOV.UK Pay as well, that local government able to pick up and use in their service. And Lisa, I know you've spoken at design calls about, about this as well.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah, absolutely. I think local authorities, they're delivering complex services, there's, there’s limited resources and it's often done at pace in, in these super challenging times - so there's real potential for platforms to improve outcomes. 

 

So for example, yeah Lisa Trickey, at Dorset Council, ran a great session with us the other week about how they are using GOV.UK Notify and Pay within their services. We announced GOV.UK Notify and Pay local authority pilots back in 2017, and then we opened a lot more alongside the launch of the Local Digital Declaration. And since then uptake of these platforms, especially Notify, has grown a lot as you say, in local government. And there does seem to be a universal willingness as May-N said, among Local Digital Declaration projects to be using government platforms - so that's just fantastic to see. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you've teed that up very nicely, because we now have a clip from Lisa Trickey. 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

So I am Lisa Trickey. I was appointed last summer as the Service Manager for Digital Strategy and Design at Dorset Council. So we're a relatively new council. We were only formed on the 1 April last year, and prior to that I worked in the County Council and I was, I've always pretty much been involved in technology and digital work. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So as you said Dorset is a new council, and in a blog post you wrote, by signing the Local Digital Declaration in the summer of 2018, “it was great timing for us because it aligned with our digital aspirations, work we were already doing and has enabled digital to be at the heart of the new Dorset Council that is being formed”. So can you talk a bit more about that, how it's helped you? 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

We, we were really keen. we wanted to create this brand new council you know taking the best of the bits of the work from previous councils but we wanted to create something new and different. But obviously on day one we didn't have all the policies and strategies that you would normally have in place for a new council. So the declaration for me in particular has been that mandate that I can reference, I can hook the work onto and I can talk about to the organisation. 

 

We were able to create dedicated capacity for digital and change. So we've got that dedicated capacity to help the organisation to adopt digital but what was really important is we didn't want it to be seen as technology - we wanted it to be seen as something different to that. And from my perspective for digital to be a success it has to permeate through everything in the organisation.

 

But there is this really fine balance all the time between technology and then bringing it back to people and designing services. So the other thing that we've done is celebrated Services Week. So that's been a brilliant initiative from GDS because actually when we started to celebrate Services Week, which we've done for 2 years, we actually had a different set of

people coming to the room and suddenly realised that actually digital isn't just about technology it's about yeah, doing things really differently and making sure that we meet the needs of our customers. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

What do you think by signing the Local Digital Declaration, it’s allowed Dorset to do that it would have been able to do otherwise?

 

Lisa Trickey:

So I think in, in local government there are always lots of competing agendas, lots of competing priorities and unless you have legislation or some sort of government policy or guidance to hook your work on to it can be really hard to drive that work forward. Unless you've got a Chief Executive that really gets it you know and we're actually quite fortunate in Dorset that we do have a really fantastic Chief Executive when it comes to digital. But what the declaration does then is gives you a clear mandate to have those conversations, you can reference what is happening elsewhere and that's really helpful. And it's really clear it's really clear about what we should be doing and so you can start to think about the plans and priorities you know for your particular council as a result of that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I just wanted to ask about the common components because I know Dorset uses GOV.UK Pay for lots of your services including things like abandoned vehicle charges, highway licenses. And you also use GOV.UK Notify for other public sector services like blood online reporting tool and services to support young people. How in particular has Dorset used GOV.UK Notify?

 

Lisa Trickey: 

So we've used Notify to both integrated with our systems and just using the backend of Notify to to send information. And we've used Notify for text messaging information, emailing but also probably the biggest through posting letters. So our waste partnership for example, have used it to notify residents of changes to rounds or recycling schemes. We've

used it during COVID to respond to residents, keep residents informed and even a group of staff that don't have access to the IT network informed. It's so quick and easy to set up and in terms of trying to save money, using GOV Notify over the last year we've saved £55,000. Which I know is not massive in the scale of things but actually every penny counts at the moment for local government. So if you can quickly replace posting a letter with Notify or even better doing it by email or by text then that's that's really, really helpful.

 

We've also used it to think about how we improve our communication with customers and particularly around parents who have children with special educational needs and we had this concept of the educational health and care plan process takes 20 weeks so it's quite a long time. So how do we keep them better up-to-date? And that's changed the experience of that service completely for parents. It's improved the relationship between the service and parents so these components have a really you have a really big impact really positive impact for relatively, for relatively low time investment.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how has being part of the Local Digital Declaration community, how, how have you been able to connect with others? Have you spoken to other councils, perhaps in other areas of the country that you maybe might not connected with before? 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

Definitely. One of the best things for me that, that came out of the declaration is now we're able to connect with people through the Slack channel that has been put in place for this. And that's just brilliant - you can reach out to anybody and just ask ‘are you doing this?’, you know or ‘we're doing this’ and that's just been brilliant. 

 

In particular we've been working with Barnsley on a Local Digital Funded project around income. So it's enabled us to get involved in that. But you know before it was just really difficult. You didn't know, especially I think being down in the south west, you know it's not like when you're in the London boroughs and you've got those connections quite close by.

 

So to, to be able to be part of that network and to be able to reach out to people. And I have to say it's one of the the best communities in terms of people are always so helpful to share information, prior to COVID, meet you, show you what they've been doing, you know it's absolutely fantastic to have that, that network, and to be able to use that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mentioned COVID and I saw this month you tweeted: ‘the declaration and fund has been so positive for local government in raising the digital agenda locally, sharing and learning from each other across the country, it’s definitely positioned us better to respond to COVID-19’. Could you talk a bit more how the declaration has helped you?

 

Lisa Trickey: 

Definitely. I mean because we've been in a place where we've been doing our own sort of low code and development, we’ve stood up over 10 online services. They've taken over 20,000 sort of applications so, we were able to move at pace for those things which was, which was really helpful.

 

In terms of the department, MHCLG, having the Friday calls and you know quickly putting those in place so we were able to connect into those and hear what other people were doing. And you know learn from others continually so they were brilliant - you didn’t feel so alone in what you were doing. And we, you, what we often find in the world of digital we find that information then you can share across the rest of the organisation and push into different areas so that's really helpful. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Part of the declaration is committing to a project and Dorset's was about developing the digital skills with Dorset Council Partnership. I don't if you could tell me a bit more about that?

 

Lisa Trickey: 

Yeah, so we've done, so, so our declaration project was around digital skills and we've come at that from sort of multiple different angles and actually we've just been nominated in Digital Leaders for it so quite excited about that.  

 

So one of the strands is around developing champions within the community. So we have about 75 digital champions within the community, helping with that digital inclusion gap that we see. And when COVID hit that was, and that enabled us to be in a position where we could move that offer into a digital hotline and people were able to ring and get that support. So people who'd never even thought about going online pre-COVID suddenly were interested in order to keep in contact with their families. So we've had over 220 calls to that and I think that's just that will remain as a lasting legacy I think of COVID and will continue to grow.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Well congratulations. I wish you luck with all the nominations.

 

And so if there's somebody from a council or local government who's listening, and they maybe haven't signed it, is there anything you'd like to say to sort of, to them about why or how it's helped you or they're like address anything you think they might be concerned about? 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

I, I get quite a lot of contact about people, how you get started? And I think just being part of that bigger network, hearing what other people are doing, learning you know from people like Hackney are, are doing fantastic work - I might not have had sight of that before this. So you know, having that ability to learn from others. And you know I hope we get to a point with the Local Digital Fund alpha projects that, you know they will be able to be shared and you will be able to take those and you know implement them here in Dorset.

 

You know what the declaration has done is just, it's opened up those networks. You can see what other people are doing. When you're starting out on digital in a local authority, quite often you're the only one trying to champion the cause and having people that you can talk to and see, actually the end, you know the end, well not necessarily the end results, but there's, there's good progress being made and it’s worth, it's worth the effort - that's really helpful. It kind of keeps you going and until you can build that coalition inside your own organisation to help with that messaging, those networks are really valuable.

 

May-N Leow:

I think for me that, what, what Lisa says right at the end about that you're not alone. Certainly again, in a similar kind of feelings when you're, you’re in a council and you're thinking: ‘am I just a mad digital person in the entire council?’ So that definitely resonates with me when I was working in council, is like I said, being a part of that community, being able to say here's what good looks like and here's what we should be doing, is, is so powerful. So it's great to hear that you know, we're supporting Lisa in that kind of way and also giving her a place to call home - that she's, she's not the odd one out, there's lots of people in this space and, and everyone's willing to kind of share and help each other out - so that was really heartwarming for me.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah. I think it just really struck me that, that local authorities are on the frontline of public service provision, and really helping people to do the things that they need to do within their communities and delivering such a lot, really.

 

I thought the, the comments around leadership, we're really interesting and getting that buy-in. And the focus on user-centered design as well, is really interesting.

 

I think that's kind of opened up - when we, when we held the Local, the first Local #GovDesign Day as well, in partnership with Birmingham City Council as well, that's kind of something that's kind of opened up as a, as, as, as something that's kind of come out of us all working together I think, with MHCLG - and that was something the user-centered design community did and that was attended by around 200 people.

 

Laura Stevens:

Also part of the Digital Declaration is building digital capability, we’re now going to hear from Paul Fleming, who’s organisation has gone on GDS Academy training.

 

Paul Fleming:

So, so my name is Paul Fleming. I’m the Director of Digital and Business Change in Blackburn with Darwen Council, which is a unitary authority in the north west of England.

 

Laura Stevens:

And am I right in saying you've been at the council for about 2 years now? And it's been quite a busy time for the digital team over that period - there's a new digital directorate that’s been formed, and you’ve had a new website published.

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah it's been a bit of a rollercoaster couple of years. So I came over from the NHS, I'd, I’d worked sort of locally and nationally in the NHS. And decided to make the leap into local government and that was, that was - I think that’s 2 years this week. So it's been a really exciting couple of years.  It was a new directorate that was formed, quite a large team - just under 150 staff.  And it was really the dawn of a new era with, with digital and, and trying to take things further for our local population.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you signed the Local Digital Declaration in February 2019, how has it helped you?

 

Paul Fleming:

It’s helped us in many ways I think. 

 

So first of all, it was a real visible commitment for us, signing the declaration. It was something that was really exciting for me. I've always been around collaboration, around learning. And I think it, it provided this, this brilliant framework for us. But, but first and foremost, it was a visible commitment for us - we, we got our exec member - our, our elected member - you know stood up in front of the press with me, talking about, about that locally. It was a sign to, to the public - it was a real sign to our organisation of, of a path of travel for us.

 

And it really it gave us a framework from, from there on in that I've been able to, to work with my teams and wider teams on to, to... I suppose beyond that create, create a bit of a culture with the organisation. I think you know, a lot of that would have been achievable without, without a sort of national and local collaboration like, like the declaration, but it, it definitely helped me. It definitely legitimised a lot of the thinking that we were doing. 

 

And I suppose since then what, what it's opened up - you know some of the learning and some of the collaboration has definitely been able to take us, enabled us to go further than what we could have done I think, without it.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mentioned there about the collaboration and learning. Could you give me some examples of that? 

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah, I think one of the major things the declaration has brought is the blogs, to me. I find this really interesting that there’s this open way of working. As a council, we launched our blog - I had my eye on many of the blogs, like learning from others, and, and I just found, found them so open and, and, and so much learning in there, that was a really refreshing change for me. 

 

I think you know wider than that, collaborating on bids has been interesting. We've not, I don't think we've, we've been successful with a bid yet through, through the sort of collaborative funding over the last whatever, 18 months it's been. But what we have got from working on those bids is collaborating with others. So I know we were working with Lincolnshire Council around waste and we've talked to a number of others, Leeds Council amongst other local authorities. 

 

I think important for me - I came from a different sector, a different part the public sector in the NHS, and it's helped me speed up those connections with, with people you know, through social media off the back of the blogs, off the back of the collaborations and, and I just think that would have took me a longer time, it would have took me more, more than this couple of years to really build some decent conversations up with people.

 

Laura Stevens:

You’ve preempted my, my next question which was, if you, ‘cause you're talking there about how the Local Digital Declaration like really massively sped up things for you. I was gonna ask if you hadn't signed it, what do you think would have been different?

 

Paul Fleming:

I think the pace of change might, might have been different, I think it would have been slower. And maybe you know, if I hadn't have signed it, I'd have been looking from the outside in. So I would have been picking up all of this but without being a signatory, and we wouldn't have then made that commitment to the wider cause and that's important.

 

And since signing the declaration and picking up all those different connections, I just have a much better network. And it's really important that I commit to that network and, and you know our counsellors are full signatory to that, so that I, I share that learning so other people don't go through maybe the pain I went through before in, in trying work some of these things out. So, so really really progress and transformation can work faster by this sort of you know, super learning network that, that is built up.

 

And you know when I looked into everything, there was some really good networks going on. And, and this is kind of, this brings together a bit of, a bit of a family of, of those networks. So it just opened, opened up my eyes to the sector, opened up a lot of connections, and yeah, definitely, definitely speeded up both pace for me, and hopefully pace for others learning from us now.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah for sure. I think the community aspect of it is something, that when I've been researching, has come up a lot. So what shared challenges do councils have?

 

Paul Fleming:

We're all trying to do the same things - we've got the same challenges, the same requirements for people. And it's up to us then to land those solutions, working with people locally, co-designing what we're doing to get that right for people. And the more we share those designs and those approaches, I think the faster we can get to the right conversation with, with people and residents locally. 

 

We've shared challenges around, certainly COVID-19 and the pandemic and the challenges that’s thrown up. Massive amount of collaboration and good open working on that, that’s helped us. I think the website, when we released the website last year, we went open source and was doing a lot of learning from others on that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And talking about the coronavirus response, and that is a challenge faced by everybody, I was reading a blog post you’d written where you said: ‘last summer we had undergone Government Digital Service training in Agile ways of working including rapid development of solutions, multidisciplinary development and user research - and we’re using this learning in dealing with the pandemic’. 

 

And this learning was provided through the digital declaration, wasn’t it? 

 

Paul Fleming:

It was yeah. I mean this has been, this has been, I don't know if it's luck - it's definitely part design, part luck at around timing. But we, we went through the GDS Agile teams training last summer, summer 2019. That, that was perfect timing going into such a huge crisis because everything we've learned and, and, and expanded on since then, has, has been used. And I don't think we would have handle this pandemic as well without that training. 

 

We, we really went on a journey after doing the agile teams training. A lot of the team started to get really interested in the agenda obviously, and get interested in, in the individual lines of learning you know, customer research or, or service design or, or other sections. So that started to break out, we developed our own internal learning track off the back of that, and we've expanded that across the council. And so we started with my directorate and probably, probably trained 100 people in the directorate on, on the GDS team’s approach, Agile teams approach. 

 

But then we started to break that out into different departments. So we had people from social care, we had people from environmental health, we had people from environment and waste - all doing the same sort of training that we had through, through GDS. So it, I can't, I can't stress how valuable that, that has been going through that. And the fact that it was you know, it was complimentary, it was free training for us at that time through signing the declaration, was just, was just great and massive for us. I don't know if we could have invested as much as we did. So, so we created this movement off the back of that. And you know, it's part declaration, but the big part of signing up was, was, was the input we got from the training. 

 

And the movement kind of started, the first thing we did, the first agile project we did was to redesign the space that the digital team worked in. And this engaged the whole team, they ran it on sprints, they ran it with kanbans in this one corner of the office that, that they had, you know. So the office then you know, a couple of months later looked completely different. I think that then grew, other people saw that, HR then saw that and they started looking at the, the department and changing their layouts, and this was all based on the learning that we picked up in those courses from, from GDS through the declaration. 

 

So yeah I can't stress how important it's been. It’s, it's kind of really changed the game culturally for us, and importantly it's give us those strong methods, that methodology, because you do need that, you do need that real learning and those real strong methods and approaches to create something good.

 

Laura Stevens:

So it seems like there's been a big ripple effect from it?

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah, and you know that's exactly what we want. We want, we want a movement, we want a movement around digital and, and design and Agile and the best things for our residents, and, and you know these approaches help us, help us to achieve that.

 

So, so it, it has created a ripple effect, and it's really heartening to see people taking on board the, the thinking. I see things now just happening in the organisation that you know, I suppose many, many years ago you, you would have controlled that from an IT section and it would have gone a lot slower, and people would have been you know against IT sometimes, the technology teams for slowing things down. We, we've now created a movement where things, things are happening. 

 

Laura Stevens:

It's clear this has had a big effect in your organisation. And I guess is there one thing you'd say to somebody who was looking to sign up to the Local Digital Declaration?

 

Paul Fleming:

So I-I think it's multifaceted, I don't think I could say one thing why you should. You know if I was to say one thing, it would be you know come and join, join this collaboration. but really it's multifaceted in, in the fact that, you need to commit - you need to make a visible commitment. And I think you know, as, as a local authority, you’re getting the buy-in from the politicians, ‘cause really you can't sign that declaration without getting executive membership buy-in to that. And by getting that, you're raising the profile of digital. So, so I think commitment, visible commitment and political commitment is important.

 

And then the other things are, and I think 2 more things - one is the framework and the skills you get out of it. And then the third, third part would be around the learning and the collaboration. And I've not even talked, I suppose when I first looked at it you know, I saw there was opportunities around funding. And, and when I was talking to politicians, I said you know if, if we sign this declaration, there is training, there is funding available, it opens up more doors. But the funding has, has not been; I mean we, we’ve not been successful in the funding rounds, but, but that hasn't mattered. We've actually got more out of those other aspects than you know, I can't put a price on some of that stuff because it's going to be taking hundreds of thousands of pounds off our cost lines by working in this way. 

 

So yeah I suppose my, my eyes have been opened the more I've been part of, of what, what the declaration has opened up really is a whole new world for us.

 

Laura Stevens:

So, what about next things you’d like to see the declaration offering?

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah, I think something I-I kind of called out very early on around, because I come from the NHS and they had like an academy for basically the CIOs [Chief Information Officers] that would go through you know a training, and that was basically like looking at the leadership issues we’ve gotten digital in the NHS. So I came out of that world and when I came into the council, I was looking for the equivalent. And I know the GDS Academy does certain things. I think the, the Digital Declaration could probably go a step further and look at like how we develop that leadership a little bit more in depth. I think that would be an area I’d be really interested in. 

 

But what I did think was can we post more people out, can we either have short secondments, can we expose people. I would love to expose some of my people to GDS teams, and you know some of these central team were, I think you know sometimes you're at the really sharp end. So I think more, taking that collaboration a step further and actually exposing people - so whether that's across different local authorities, whether that's working between central and local. I think that's, that's an area I'd love to see developed up. You know I'd love to personally sit in another team for a few days and see how things work and invite others to come in and do the same in our team, and, and you know ditto for all, all of my staff who have got the interest on, on that side.

 

May-N Leow:

Just fantastic to hear from, from Paul and the feedback that he's had in his council. It kind of mirrors the experience I had in Southwark as well as that. You know when you're initially trying to sell why you should sign the Declaration, you obviously use the funding and the free training as that kind of carrot to get your senior management and politicians interested, but then seeing the wider benefits of like the, the results of the training as well as that kind of organisational transformation and that ingraining of digital and user-centeredness approach is, is always fantastic to, to hear. And Paul's like a great example to showcase what, what is possible when you've got that someone who believes that and drives it and use the declaration, as well as all the benefits, to kind of spearhead the movement in his council. So I think that, that again, stuck with me. 

 

And other, in terms of training, obviously it’s partner-partnership with GDS Academy. We've put through 1,183 Council Officers and leaders to date, on free training. And yeah, we've just had amazing feedback in response on, on that - especially the Agile for Teams, that kind Paul references. And because we go to the councils when we run that training - I think that's the great thing about that particular course, where it's in the council, it's with other people in your council rather than you in isolation doing that training. 

 

So because of COVID-19, a lot of our training is on pause at the moment. But we are going to be looking with GDS Academy to start the training back up again. Obviously following government regulations.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah,I mean wow, what, what, what a great story of, of change and, and overcoming challenges.

 

I really like how Paul is involving everyone on, on this journey and including people, and thinking about the enablers to change, even down to redesigning the space in which people work. So yeah, there was, as May-N said, there's MHCLG and GDS Academy run, run training to build this capability. And courses, some of them were delivered at the time at the GDS Academy venues, and then the Agile for Teams was delivered at the local authorities’s own location, and it kind of enables the teams to get this really hands-on experience about how to apply Agile methodologies within their own environment, within their own context. And I thought it was great how Paul's kind of really embedded the learning that he took from the, from the training and he's embedded it and really been able to, to use it. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Paul spoke about how the training has helped his organisation during coronavirus. And how else has the declaration helping during this pandemic?

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. So initially at the beginning of COVID, we had weekly calls specifically around the crisis response that local authorities are facing obviously, on the sharp end of the stick on supporting the communities. 

 

And then now we're kind of moving to bi-weekly calls on that kind of phase recovery, as again councils start to kind of think of reopening services like libraries, community centres. But as well as that, that blend of face-to-face interaction versus remote interaction. 

 

And there's a real willingness and thing of momentum now from not, to not go back to the way it was. So councils have seen that you know we can do things fast, we can share data, we can do things securely, but do it in a way that actually meets resident needs. So I think there's a real ambition and a real, the right time really to kind of look at all organisational transformation and seeing how digital can actually make service delivery even better and get in, engage more, more residents. 

 

And so we’re, we're also looking at launching a special COVID round, which hopefully will be live once this podcast goes out, so that's in recognition of all that you know, the moving from crisis response now to phase recovery. So again, councils are coming up with similar challenges that we would like to help support councils with.

 

Laura Stevens:

And sort of on that, if somebody is listening from local government, how do they get in touch, how do they stay connected, how do they sign up to the declaration?

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Now I just say, the Slack channels are absolutely fantastic, and the Local Digital Community’s brilliant. And you've got GDS folks on there from all different teams wanting to support you, and answer any questions about any of the kind of support wrap that we had around the Local Digital Declaration, whether that's common platforms, GDS Academy training, we kind of raised a bit of awareness around the Digital Marketplace or the Crown Commercial Service and you know, the Service Standards. 

 

May-N Leow:

Sure, so our website, localdigital.gov.uk, has all the information on how to sign up as a signatory. You can also follow us on Twitter at LDgovUK, and we're all there. And yeah by all means, DM directly to us or to the channel, and we'd love to hear from you.

 

And because we're obviously coming up to our 2 year anniversary in July, not only the podcast, which again thank you for the opportunity to speak about the declaration, we're going to be launching a, a, a whole campaign in celebration, which is going to last a month. So there's going to be lots of activities that will amplify all the amazing work that the local councils are doing at the moment, but also kind of get people to think about how, what does it means to kind of recommit to the declaration, to like properly bring in more of the principles of the declaration, and what, what’s that kind of journey that councils, not just Lisa and Paul, but other people have had. 

 

So we'll be showcasing a lot of those great stories more as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you both so much for coming on the podcast today, it's been great having you. And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms, and the transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

May-N Leow:

Thanks Lisa and Laura. It’s been good fun.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Thanks very much. It’s been brilliant. Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast #19: A spotlight on GOV.UK Notify

Government Digital Service Podcast #19: A spotlight on GOV.UK Notify

May 27, 2020

Laura Stevens: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer at GDS. And like last month’s episode, this one will also be recorded via Hangouts as we’re all remote working now. 

 

So today we’re going to be talking about GOV.UK Notify. This is the government’s messaging tool which allows teams across the public sector to send out text messages, letters and emails to their users - cheaply and easily.

 

It sent its first notification in May 2016, and this month GOV.UK Notify reached a milestone and has sent out one billion messages. 

 

Notify gets critical information to people that need it. It’s used by local councils, health organisations, central government departments, fire services and many other public sector bodies. And it’s used for a diverse range of services including flood alerts, blue badge notifications, doctor appointment reminders and informing prison wardens of their rotas, to name a few. 

 

So to tell me more is Pete Herlihy, so please could you introduce yourself, what you do here at GDS and your role on Notify. 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yes, I can Laura. So yeah, I’m Pete, I work on the Notify Team, I help them out. I’m a Product Manager. I’ve been at GDS since the beginning, I haven’t, I haven’t made parole just yet.

 

I’ve worked a lot on a number of platforms in GDS, so publishing platform, GOV.UK, register to vote, petitions and more recently, when I say more recently, my, my latest gig is on Notify, which we’ve been doing now for just over 4 years. And we started with literally 2 people and we’re now 11, and yeah my role on that is just to help and support that team to deliver what is GOV.UK Notify.

 

Laura Stevens

And why was Notify set up 4 years ago?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Well there’s a story there. So Notify was one of the solutions that came out of something called the ‘Enabling Strategy’, which was a piece of work GDS did. The, the reality behind that piece of work was we needed to figure out as an organisation what we could do to help the rest of government do what they do.

 

And so there was a bunch of stuff going on, we looked at various different kind of common problems across government that we wanted to solve, and, and that was kind of where the whole Government as a Platform programme emerged during that time. And one of the problems we wanted to solve was keeping people informed.

And we, we learned very quickly that we probably didn’t need a status tracking application, but what we needed was a notifications platform. And the reckon was, which we did soon validate very quickly, was that if we could kind of just tell people what we knew as soon as we knew it, we didn’t have to wait for them to get anxious enough to jump on a website and look and you know, sign in and see where the thing was at. So it might have saved, or it would have solved our problems with regards to you know the cost of running contact centres and all that avoidable contact, but it wouldn’t really have helped our citizens or end users as much. And so we, we fairly early on validated that and pivoted from a status tracking application to a notifications application. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And can you talk about some of the service teams that use it, like who uses it and what do they use it for?  

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Well we have now, what’s the number, around 2 and a half thousand service teams now using it, which is a lot. I think - when we started, someone, there was an external consultancy that did a little bit of work for us and they thought there might be 80 services that would use it. And, we were like OK cool, that’s a good number to aim at. But, it’s a completely different profile actually from what we’ve envisaged. 

 

We thought at the start they’ll be a bunch of really big services using it and that will be like where the bulk comes from and then we kind of quickly learned that there was a really really long tail of smaller service teams that, and many we didn’t recognise as being a service, necessarily when we started who are really going to get the most benefit out of it. So the big teams might save money, and they’ll get a better product but they probably would have done something anyway. Whereas the rest of them just maybe wouldn’t enter the space of digital comms in this way - so they benefit massively from Notify. 

 

So the types of teams, you list, you ran through a bunch at the start there. So, we do have nearly as many service teams in local government using it, as we do in central government. And an increasing number in the NHS as well. Obviously events of this year have seen massive surges in uptake from all of those sectors. 

 

For example of things we’re doing a bunch of messaging for the COVID services, all the support and advice the NHS is providing to the extremely vulnerable, that’s all going through Notify. All your test results are going through Notify as well. We’ve got a huge amount of business continuity messaging, so accounts all telling the staff where and when they need to go to do work or changes-changes to opening hours or that sort of thing. 


We do passport applications, progress updates, flood alerts, global travel alerts, I mean there are, every service is slightly different and that’s kind of the point. So yeah 2 and half thousand of them, 650 organisations I think across the public sector and there’s still a lot more out there who hopefully one day will be using Notify.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And also was reading on GOV.UK, there was a press release put out which said that Notify is on track to save taxpayers an average of £35 million a year over the next 5 years. When you, it started, did you think you’d be making those sort of savings, yeah, to the taxpayer? 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

We were hopeful. We knew that the return on investment for something like Notify was massive because you know, a text message that cost you 1 and a half pence versus a phone call that costs you £5. That doesn’t take many many phone calls to be avoided to make a good case. 

 

And, I remember doing a presentation at GDS Sprint 16, Sprint 16, the orange one. It was very orange. And one of the slides on that was 1 in 4 calls to government is someone just asking for an update. It costs a lot of money to run a contact centre and the government deals with literally tens of millions of phone calls a year. So if we can knock out a quarter of those by investing in a small team doing notifications, then there’s going to be some massive savings. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I thought as well as hearing from you about, from the sort of product point of view, we also wanted to hear from one of the users. So we interviewed Silvia Grant who’s the Lead User Researcher at the Environment Agency, who works on the flood warning service which uses Notify. 

 

Silvia Grant: 

So my name is Silvia Grant, I’m a Senior User Researcher for DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. And I work on an Environment Agency project called ‘The Flood Warning System’. We’re replacing that currently and the new project name is called ‘The Next Warning System’, so we’ve deliberately dropped the flood from that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And what, can you explain a bit more about that service? What does it do? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yes, so the Environment Agency has been sending out flood warnings since 1996. It’s a category 1 responder and has the responsibility for issuing these messages to the citizens and people who are at risk of flooding. So what the system does is we send out these texts, these emails, we have this information on GOV.UK, and it’s all about warning people that flooding in the area is likely or is happening.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how does that system use GOV.UK Notify? 

 

Silvia Grant:

So at the moment we have over 500,000 user accounts registered to our service, and we use Notify to send letters and texts. And we send them letters to tell them when they’ve first registered that we update their account details, changes to the service, that sort of thing. And obviously also for our texts.  

 

Laura Stevens:

And how does that translate into the amount of notifications being sent to the people? And obviously this must change year on year depending on the flooding and depending on the weather and everything.

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah. Well so since we’ve moved across to Notify in December 2018, we’ve sent over 4 and a half million texts and close to 10,000 letters. So those are big numbers for us. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

How does having Notify help you get the information to the people that need to hear it? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Well first of all it’s it’s quicker - so it’s simpler and quicker and cheaper for us to use Notify. So we can send, in in terms of letters for instance, we can send them daily rather than weekly. We have much more freedom around content changes, we can test those changes. So it’s it’s saving us a lot of that admin time, and cost as well. 

 

And because it’s a very stressful scenario for our users, it’s quite again, high emotion, high stress, high impact scenario that we send these letters and these texts in, it, it’s, it’s very important for us to get it right and to, you know for the process to be as slick as possible. And I think Notify really helps us do that.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So this is a really important service because there are, there’s 2.6 million properties at risk of flooding. So what sort of information is being sent out through Notify? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah, that’s right. So in England the estimate is between 1 in 5, 1 in 6 homes in England are at risk of flooding. And obviously that figure is growing because of climate change and a number of other factors. 

 

So it’s, in some cases when we issue severe flood warnings, those are warnings where there is danger to life. So those can be very serious. But overall the flood warning service aims to save lives and livelihoods. So yes overall quite a high impact service. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how much would this, do you have an estimate on how much it’s saving money-wise for the Environment Agency? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah so just got the figure off the team and it’s saved, in the last 2 years that we’ve been using it, approximately saved the taxpayer at least £150,000. So that’s letters, texts, running costs, everything.

 

Laura Stevens:

But as you’re saying you’re working on like a high impact service that has to get out messages quickly and which has a, yeah an impact, a big impact on people’s lives. Does having something like Notify in place sort of allow you to then have the space to do other things? Because you know that that’s there, that’s just gonna work, and you can then focus on other thi-parts of this quite emotional and high impact service. 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah definitely. So it’s, it’s quite a long, for our users it’s quite a stressful time receiving those alerts or those warnings, and when they pick those up we, we need to make sure that they arrive instantly, that they say the right things and using a central government platform makes sure that we have that extra accountability that we really need for sending these out. 

 

And yes as well that that has given us a lot more space for actually focussing on things like the content of the message.

 

So it’s been overall a positive under all spheres. So it’s easy to use, it’s intuitive, it’s reliable, it’s transparent. So if ever there is an issue with it, we are notified instantly. And again the Notify Team has been really responsive with feedback, so whenever we have had requests or issues, there’s been a fantastic service on their part.

 

Laura Stevens:

How do you plan to use Notify in the future, in your product?

 

Silvia Grant:

  1. So as our system gets replaced, the Flood Warning System into what we call the ‘Next Warning System’, we anticipate to use Notify even more. So we’re planning to send confirmation codes to users who sign up to the service on their mobiles. So that is, is a step forward in terms of security for us and it’s again, a cheaper journey and for the user, it’s it’s a 2-step journey rather than a 4- or 5-step. We’ve been testing that with the user and it’s, it’s a very positive response. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, is that, is that how you imagined Notify would be being used? 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

I don’t think we clocked Notify being used to protect life necessarily when we started out. 

 

But we did get, or start working with the Environment Agency fairly early on, so, so, which was great, because what that meant was we had this use case that we could point out internally to say that look this is really crucial. This, this isn’t just about getting a passport update quicker or these kinds of things. This, this is literally a life-saving message and that, that allowed us to focus the right kind of energies on our resilience and make sure we got what we needed. Because we can’t not be there right like if we’re sending these-this kind of message. We have been working with them for a while, they’re a great team, they blog a lot about what they’re doing which is fantastic and very cool.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Was there anything else in the clip that particularly stood out to you?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yeah I think there’s 2 things. So one is letters. Because I think people think of text messages and emails and forget letters is a thing for Notify. Don’t forget but it’s less well understood. And when we started, back in 2016, when we started out, we were letters is probably a thing just because we need to offer a full palette of comms option and for some people they need a letter, or they prefer a letter, or digitally excluded, whatever it might be, they have legitimate reasons, some of them are legally required for example. 

 

And we only, and we kind of stumbled over letters, well not stumbled over, we confirmed our letters when we were doing our, these tours of the application processing. Tours sounds really grand doesn’t it? But we’d sit with a team and one of the things they would do is they would finish preparing an application receipt or confirmation of decision or whatever it was going to be. And then they’d press print and they’d select the printer and they’d walk over, join a queue and someone would yell out ‘stop printing I need to put in the letterhead paper’ you know and they’d, and we were like oh this must be very expensive, and then goes from a printer, they’re folding it up into an envelope, the envelope goes into a tray, someone comes round in the afternoon with a trolley and picks them all up and we thought ‘woah there’s got to be a better way of doing letters’.

 

And that was real early confirmation that if we could make it easy for teams to do letters we could save, help them save, huge amounts of money and time. The amount of time people were just standing around waiting for the printers and things like this, so if that could just be a click it’s like great. And they could do lots more good things with their time. 

 

So that was one thing that was really interesting. 

 

The second is around the real time content changes. So one of the problems I guess we were trying to solve was often these things are like hard-coded and you need a developer and you need to pay a change request fee to your external supplier to update a typo even in a letter or change a URL in an email or something like that. 

 

And we really wanted, not only make it easier to do that in real time but also to allow the interface to be used by like a content designer or a comms person, so they could be involved in shaping the messages themselves in real time. Not just preparing it in a word doc that goes round for sign off by committee, and then is handed over to a development team to implement. 

 

So we, we really tried to bring those roles into the team. And you know we were hearing horror stories of people paying tens of thousands just to change a few letters, or including extra things because they couldn’t change a letter saying so please ignore this section, these kind of horror stories you hear about. So that was one of the important bits for us to get real time content changes in an accessible way into Notify and I’m glad to hear they’re using it well as well. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

We also have a clip from the Canadian Digital Service which is Canada’s version of GDS. Notify is obviously used across the UK in the public sector but how has Notify also been used around the world?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

So we’ve worked with a number of teams actually around the world - some we’ve shared patterns with, others we’ve shared our open source code with. And we, as of today I think there are 2 Notify’s being used in anger, one in Australia through the DTA, the Digital Transformation Agency, it’s basically the, the Aussie version of GDS. They were the first, they forked the Notify code maybe about a year and a half, 2 years ago now. And they’re now running that for the Australian government. They’ve you know, taken the code, they then iterate on top of it to add things that are unique and special to them.  

 

The Canadian Digital Service are also running a version of Notify. And that’s growing quickly, it’s grown quicker than we did when we started, so yay for them. But those are the 2 that are being used at government level.

 

Have to say there’s a lot of people who just pick stuff up from blogs or from Twitter or whatever, rather than any kind of formal introductions to the product. Yeah so it’s a great product, very proud that others have picked up the codebase and are running with it, we continue to work with those teams. Speak to teams like Code for America who are doing great stuff in the States. We’ve had a few all team web catch ups with the Canadian Team, and the Americans to show and tell really about what they’re doing, enhancements they’ve made, things they’d like to contribute back. So we’ve got a good little community going on, which is fantastic. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, a very nice international community. And we’re going to hear from Bryan Willey, who’s a Product Manager of Notify at the Canadian Digital Service.

 

Bryan Willey:

So my name is Bryan Willey, I’m a Product Manager here at CDS, the Canadian Digital Service. And I am the Product Manager for Notify, a piece of software, an open source software, we took from GOV.UK. 

 

Sorry is that my cat or your cat? 

 

Laura Stevens:

I don’t have a cat, so it’s not my cat.

 

Bryan Willey: 

She’s miaowing outside the door. Sorry about that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And yeah would it be fair to say for UK listeners, the Canadian Digital Service is Canada’s version or the equivalent of GDS over there?

 

Bryan Willey:

Yes absolutely. I mean it basically has similar initials. Yeah, so the Canadian Digital Service was made with both GDS and the American 18F Group in mind. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And could you describe what the product you manage is, Notify?

 

Bryan Willey:

So Notify is a email platform. Well we’re using predominantly as an email platform, it also does SMS. I know that yours does letters but we’re not there yet. We’re predominantly using it for email and it helps the Canadian government sort of send email messages from a centralised location to the public. Something that the Canadian government’s only been able to do with Outlook servers and traditional email servers before.

 

Notify allows us to have this cloud-at-cost system that can deploy emails very quickly to anyone who wants to use the service, whether that’s an API integration to connect up to automatically reply when somebody submits an application, or if it’s a newsletter that goes out that people sign up for. And it’s been very helpful in sort of building any of those systems because in the past, we’ve had to go procure an individual cloud email vendor for each solution we built.

 

Notify allows us to centralise all that, procure, secure and say yeah, this one thing is now what we use for email. And so we don’t have to go through the process of procuring it every time, and that’s been exceedingly helpful.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how’s it going? Because I see, I looked on your dashboard and now 22 services are using Notify and more than 740,000 notifications have been sent.

 

Bryan Willey:

Yeah. Well we think it’s going pretty well. The growth has been faster than we had expected. The current crisis has something to do with that. It’s definitely upped our volume more than it would have been.

 

Out of the 22 live services, it’s a mix of how much they’re getting used; some are small, more prototype-y services that do things like password reset emails. Whereas some of our more recent ones include a subscription newsletter for Health Canada to combat COVID-19 misinformation. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So I saw your blog post on the CDS blog from November 2019, and in it you said ‘this, meaning your Notify tool, isn’t something we built entirely from scratch. Using open source code from the hugely successful GOV.UK Notify service, created by the GDS in the UK, our team is adapting it to fit within our context, in English and French - both of Canada’s official languages’. 

 

So I wanted to talk about like, what were the user needs for Canada and how was that similar to the user need over here, and yeah how were you able to adapt, what had been done over here?

 

Bryan Willey:

Yeah. So much in the same way I imagine GDS discovered this problem, we had a lot of government services that were communicating with people by mail and phone and the people would rather just get an email, you know. Then they don’t have to sit around and wait for a phone call. And when we were building services early in CDS, we discovered this and we’d be setting up email for each of these services. So after doing this 2, 3 times, CDS said ‘we should really just make this so we can have it every time’. 

 

Because we’re not, also not the only ones looking for this. The government of Canada is moving towards more cloud-first strategy and as such they’ve identified the needs for email notifications in a bunch of services. So we forked not just GOV.UK Notify, the DTA [Digital Transformation Agency] in Australia also had a copy of Notify that they had modified a bit from yours. And we looked at both of those and evaluated them, and we forked GDS Notify because we wanted to be able to get your upstream security changes and stuff and pull them down into our repo [repository]. And the Australian one was merged into a big mono-repo which gave us less flexibility with the code.

 

So forking the GDS one was a great idea to sort of prototype it and see what we had to work with because this was already a solution to the problem we’d found. And we then had to, we liked it so we modified it to Canada. Some of the first things we did was of course update SMS to Canadian phone numbers, add timezone support in, so that the logs and stuff functions across more than one timezone. We had to pull apart the whole UI [user interface] and translate it into French because Canada has 2 official languages. And so it’s been a bit of an overhaul for that, and that’s been a lot of our major work.

 

And we also had to sort of modify the branding system bit. Because again, 2 official languages means 2 official government brands, one in English and one in en français. So we’ve had to sort of modify the templating system. We’re working on that a bit more now to expand it for both official language use cases.

 

And so it’s, it’s just been a lot of tweaks here and there to the system and and re-you know changing the UI to look more like Canada.ca than GOV.UK.

 

Laura Stevens:

And by having this already in place, what has it allowed you to do? Has it allowed you to move quicker, has it saved you hassle? How has it affected your work and your plan with the product?

 

Bryan Willey:

It definitely saved us hassle because we’d have to set that all up from scratch on our own. The email problem, the notification problem, wasn’t going to go away. And these Canadian departments were going to solve it and were solving it by their own means - they were building up their own Outlooks servers and using email stuff. You know that wasn’t taking advantage of cloud-at-cost like Notify did. 

 

So having the software that you’d spent 3 years building and already putting a lot of the settings and permissions and access and security and tech in place, really saved us the time having to go through that on our own.

 

Laura Stevens:

And also I wanted to ask, so when I’ll be playing this, this edited clip back, I’ll be with Pete. And I wondered if you had anything you wanted to say to him, any questions or any requests as the Lead Product Manager for Notify?

 

Bryan Willey:

Thanks for all your help, I guess. You know. I..it’s working great for us so I don’t know if there’s anything we need or any help specifically from Pete. The software is pretty complete in its solution for email and SMS, and so thanks for all your hard work Pete. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So was there anything in there that you were surprised by or that you hadn’t realised?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

So I’d knew, I’d seen actually most of that we’ve shared with the team so. The one that I didn’t clock was the branding, and the dual language branding - I hadn’t even thought about that one. So we, we may, we may steal that back. Obviously there’s more than one official language in the UK as well so. 

 

That’s really great to hear that.

 

There was an interesting point though around the use of Notify, either by an API or not, so again that was one of our really early reckons when we started Notify, was that not everyone’s got a development team or development capacity or is high enough a priority in their organisation to get the focus. And so we couldn’t just make something that only worked, worked for API and so everything you can do in Notify, you can do via the web interface as well. 

 

And the other bit I guess that is maybe even overlooked a bit, is that you get like 3 years worth of software development or whatever, but you also get 3 years worth of research. And we’ve, we’ve done a lot. You know we’ve always had a dedicated user researcher in the team, we’ve always done a huge amount of user research, which you have to d-, for something you’re aspiring to make completely self-service, you have to do the user research, otherwise it’s just never going to be. 

 

And so we’ve done loads with like developers, with finance people, with product teams - all the different types of people we see wanting to use Notify. I think what you get when you fork code or, or you know even just take the patterns that another team has, has, derived is you just save yourself years of user research. And again, at that point you can then focus on what are the, the like the niche research requirements around working en francais as he says or whatever else it might be. So that, along with kind of the blogging that goes along the way that shows some of the thinking that goes into the product and some of the decisions that are taken, I mean all of it just shows how, how sensible it is to be doing this stuff in the open. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, for sure. And I think that, talking about doing stuff in the open and blogging, leads me on quite nicely to my next part, because I wanted to talk about Notify’s most recent work on coronavirus, which you referenced at the top of the podcast. And 2 of our colleagues, Miriam Raynes and Mark Buckley wrote a blog post about how Government as a Platform, or GaaP services, as a whole are helping with the COVID-19 response. 

 

But to talk specifically about Notify, they, in the blog post it’s talking about this huge increase in numbers, like 2 million SMS messages were sent using Notify on a single day in March compared to the daily average of 150,000. I’ve also got a figure here of daily messages up as much as 600%, as high as 8.6 million a day. 

 

So what services are using Notify to help with the government’s coronavirus response?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yeah, there, so the, the increase in communication is obviously massive and needs to be. And one of the biggest users of Notify is the GOV.UK email service, and they, they do all of the email for people who subscribe to any content that the government publishes - so travel alerts for example, if you want to know can I take a flight to Namibia, here’s the guidance, or if there’s hurricanes coming through the Caribbean and these countries are affected, then I need to like push out information to say don’t go to these places, or whatever it might be. And those alerts are, you know, again potentially protecting people, life and property - they’re like really important. And there’s been a huge amount of travel advice and alerts being given, as, as you can imagine. So that’s been one of the biggest users. 

 

We’ve also seen, I mentioned earlier, like a huge amount of business continuity stuff. And we put a blog post out recently as well, just reminding I guess more than anything, that all of the public sector could use Notify to provide emergency staff updates for changes to working patterns et cetera. as a result of COVID-19. So there’s definitely been a big uptick there.

 

And then I think, from, from the health perspective there’s, I’ll just say NHS because there’s like various bits of the NHS that are working like ridiculously hard and fast to spin out new services really quickly, and these services are like just incredibly crucial right now.

 

So the extremely vulnerable service, this is one where the government said if you are you know, in this extreme risk category you should stay at home for 12 weeks, and they’ve been texting this group of people.

 

There’s all the stuff around testing and results for testing, ordering home test kits, all these sorts of things. So there’s the very specific COVID response type stuff and that is, there is a significant volume of that that’s still ongoing. 

 

There is business as usual to some degree actually still going on. So people are you know, people are still having to renew passports or whatever it might be. Whilst the volumes are down, they’re still happening. So we don’t stop all the other messaging and just focus on this, we’ve, we’ve got all that to do as well, and this is, this is all additional, it’s all on top. 

 

It all came very quickly as well. You know this wasn’t a gradual ramp up over weeks and weeks to 5,6,700%, it was, it was almost overnight. And yeah, it’s been a huge task to, to keep the platform stable. We had one outage as a result of this on St Patrick’s Day. Which obviously we were massively disappointed at, like our resilience is like one of our, you know, one of the things we pride ourselves most on but we just couldn’t prepare for that kind of instantaneous ramp up. So we, we fixed that very quickly and you know Notify itself has been very stable since.

 

But we’re still continuing on the basis of what we’re seeing now, we’re going to call that the new normal and then we need to add again capacity, 2 or 3 times that again. So there’s still a lot of work to be done, the team still working incredibly hard as they have been ever since, well always, but particularly since, since lock-in began. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I believe I’m right in saying as well the 1 billionth message was also a coronavirus one - that was for a notification sent by the coronavirus home testing service.

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yes, it was, that was quite opportune. It’s a good example of the type, the primary type of messaging that’s going on with Notify at the moment. 

 

And you know those levels are still high, I think we had like 7 and a half million again on Friday, so we’re not getting any quieter. We’re, and we have to plan that we’re not going to. And if we do get quieter then ok, that’s fine but we, we can’t sort of take our foot off at the moment.

 

Laura Stevens: 

As you mentioned one of the organisations using Notify a lot at the moment is the NHS and the various teams within the NHS. And we’ve got a clip from Darren Curry, who’s the Chief Digital Officer at the NHS Business Services Authority, about how and why his team are using Notify. 

 

Darren Curry:

Hello I’m Darren Curry, the Chief Digital Officer for the NHS Business Services Authority [NHSBSA], which is an organisation which processes a lot of nationwide transactions on behalf of the NHS, so both public-facing and towards other clinical-facing services. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you’re quite a long standing member of NHSBSA, aren’t you?

 

Darren Curry:

Yes, I am. So I’ve been at NHS Business Services Authority for roughly 17 years, 17, 18 years now. Believe it or not, I joined originally as a Data Entry Officer back in the day, whilst I was doing my university degree, for pocket money effectively, or beer money. And it paid for me through, through university and I have enjoyed it so much and progressed in the organisation to now be Chief Digital Officer so it’s, it’s been a good place to work. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I know that the NHS Business Services Authority has been doing lots of things in response to coronavirus but what I’d like to talk to you about today is what you’ve used GOV.UK Notify for.  

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah. So we use GOV.UK Notify on a number of our live services as we stand now. So we, we issue exemption certificates, so prepayment certificates for prescription forms, maternity exemptions, which we now issue digitally - so, so we already use Notify for those services in our, our normal processing. 

 

We, we first started around coronavirus with Notify on a, what was a relatively small service, for informing individuals who were returning into the UK or who were being advised to isolate, so to provide advice during the 7 days isolation period. 

 

And since then our support has grown in the services. So we then utilised the Notify service to support provisioning information to patients who were identified as high risk should they contract coronavirus. So there, there’s individuals who have been asked to shield during the outbreak in order to reduce the chances of them contracting the virus. So we, we text messaged all of those individuals over a 7-so we issued them with 7 texts messages, so one per day, providing advice and guidance on, on what to do during their shielding period. 

 

That, that service has grown as, as more people who’ve been identified as being vulnerable, so working with GP practices and NHS England and NHS Digital to identify more individuals who, who may be vulnerable should they contract coronavirus. That, that has grown and we’ve issued more text messages and information to those individuals. 

 

We’ve used Notify to provide test results for coronavirus, working with NHS Digital and other partners. We’ve used Notify to also provide advice and information for individuals who go through the 111 service in providing text messages and also emails for those services.

 

Adding it all together, over the last 4 weeks, we’ve issued around about 17 million text messages via Notify through the services that we are, we are delivering, so. 

 

It’s, it’s scaling and it’s growing very quickly. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And so this is, the, the information you’re getting out there is obviously like, it’s really important it’s right, it’s really important that it gets to the right people, it’s an emotional service like, people are scared, like your users are concerned. So-why did you pick Notify to use this on, on these particular services? 

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah. So, So I mean Notify brings a lot of benefits. I, I think should also say that we, we, in terms of building those messages as well, we worked with colleagues in behavioural insights teams within government, Public Health England, NHSX, content designers, on all of those, and getting the content right was, was critical for these services. 

 

But you’re absolutely right, the infrastructure to send those services, those, those messages needed to be kind of stable and dependable. And, Notify does that, so it’s, it is national infrastructure that we can, can leverage all of the benefits of that having already been built as a government platform that we can consume, to, to use as a service really quickly, securely and safely and knowing that, that those messages will, will be passed. There’s lots of benefits that the Notify service has, has brought us.  

 

So if, frankly if we were having to do this without the Notify service, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. So that we, we would have been dependent upon trad-more traditional legacy contact methods, such as post, to individuals to inform them on, on this scale. We would had to build a, a technology solution to meet this need - we clearly didn’t have to do that, we could leverage something that was already built for this purpose. 

 

And, and this is the benefit of government as a platform that we can consume, you know, the first service we set up with Peter was done within an hour. We, we were able to from, from the request to us being then able to actually push text messages, it took less than an hour to, to go from A to B on that. And you know, without Notify we would have been looking at days, and, and in this situation of a, of a national pandemic, then time’s obviously absolutely critical you know, for people to be able to act upon the advice which has been provided - it’s, it’s, it’s genuinely critical. 

 

Yeah, so, so Notify brings all of those benefits - secure, platform, scalable, to be able to deliver those messages. Yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Can you tell me about some of the responses to these SMSs?

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah. For the shielded patients list and the text messages we sent the first cohort when we sent those, we enabled individuals to reply. And some, and we did some analysis on the replies to, to those messages and some of, some of the messages indicated, well some of the replies that we received indicated the difference that the service was really having. 

 

So you know the, the replies from people thanking, just saying thank you for informing us and like, they, they would follow the guidance and the maybe hadn't realised that they were in that high risk category beforehand. In this instance you know, we sent it out and we were able to see some of the replies and know that as a result of that action that was taken by sending that message out to an individual, there was an action that that individual was then going to take. And that action potentially, more than potentially, more than likely will result in a reduced risk of that individual being taken ill, and consequences of that. 

 

So yeah, it, it really does bring home that and highlight the importance of some of these services and how they all join together. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So, NHS Business Services Authority is obviously doing a lot of work, you’re working also with other organisations across government as well, aren’t you?

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah, so we, we are working alongside our partner organisations including so NHS England, NHS Improvement, NHSX, Department of Health and Social Care directly, Public Health England, the Behavioural Insights Team, GDS also and NHS Digital, have all, we’ve all collaborated and come together across on multiple different services that we are doing. So it’s been a real collaborative effort across the whole of the government family to get these services up and running.

 

Laura Stevens:

And had you, did you find you had to, ‘cause obviously it’s for use in like health services but it’s also used like in central government departments, it’s used by local authorities, it’s used in prison services, used by fire services. Like did you find you had to adapt it at all to the health context or was it all sort of ready to go for you? 

 

Darren Curry:

The great, one of the many great things about Notify is it works just out of the box. So from my development teams in the [NHS] Business Service Authority, it’s a, it’s a really easy integration point. So whether we’re integrating using an API to push the, the messaging or whether we're doing batch uploads of CSVs [comma-separated values files] or spreadsheets or whatever, it works for, for all of those things. 

 

I think the, the other thing as well to mention is, is that you know Notify, it’s a trusted service. So we were able to work with the National Cyber Security Centre [NCSC] as well to, to ensure working with the Notify Team and NCSC, to ensure that the messages we were sending were protected numbers. So it was you know again, just adding that, that security to the whole service when you’re doing critical services for people, that we can make sure that they’re trusted and they are known and protected. 

 

Laura Stevens:

If I’m playing this clip back to Pete, is there anything you want to ask him or anything you want the team to develop next? 

 

Darren Curry:

I, you know what, it’s a, it’s a really tough question because the, the Notify Team, it’s, it’s a fantastic service. And I think rather than asking Pete to develop anything else, I think my encouragement to Pete and the team is to take that time to reflect on the things that this service has enabled in a time of a national crisis and the things that him and the team have been able to enable, are awesome. And it’s easy to forget that. And 17 million messages to people who needed support, that would not have been achieved, will have genuinely saved lives and protected people.

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Wow. That’s awesome. Seeing the value that has to them and understanding that you know, without Notify being in place, that stuff just could not happen or you know wouldn’t have been remotely as effective as, you know I maybe hadn’t quite appreciated the, the extent of that.

 

So yeah, that’s pretty mind blowing. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. Yeah I think what Darren says well is articulate how this technology tool but how it translates to in people’s lives.

 

Pete Herhily: 

Yeah, makes it, it makes it very real, for sure. I, I think, I think, you know we’ve talked a bit in the past about how we can’t afford not to have these platforms in place, and, and that was before a global pandemic right? But, and it’s not you know, Notify’s not the only platform in town - we’ve got publishing, you know identity, payments - so but we need them, we can’t afford to not have them. Yeah, now more than ever I guess.

 

I just want my team to hear that. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you so much for Pete for coming on today. 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Welcome. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms, and the transcript’s available on PodBean.

Government Digital Service Podcast #18: GOV.UK’s initial response to Coronavirus

Government Digital Service Podcast #18: GOV.UK’s initial response to Coronavirus

April 28, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer at GDS. And today’s episode is recorded a little bit differently, as we’re all remote now, this will be our first podcast done via hangouts. 

 

We’re going to be talking about GOV.UK’s initial response to the coronavirus. GOV.UK is the online home for the UK government, and it’s where millions of people access government services everyday. Of course COVID-19 does not need an introduction as the pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives.

 

In the first few weeks since lockdown began, GOV.UK has created products and services to help people understand what to do in these uncertain times. GDS has set up a landing page, built new services and now streams the press conferences live from GOV.UK. All of this work has helped people. It’s helped make sure food parcels are delivered to extremely vulnerable people, it’s helped businesses offer essential support, and it’s helped give people answers to important questions - like how to attend a funeral or manage a payroll. 

 

All this high-profile and important work is being delivered remotely, under intense scrutiny and at pace. To tell me more about this work is Leanne Cummings and Markland Starkie, both of the GOV.UK Team. So welcome both to our first remote podcast. Please can you tell me who you are and what your role on GOV.UK is.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Hello everyone. This is wildly exciting. This is my first ever podcast, so that’s great. I am Leanne Cummings, and I’m the Head of Product for GOV.UK.

 

Markland Starkie:

Hi, hello, hello. My name is Markland Starkie, and I am Head of Content for GOV.UK. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you’ve both been about, at GDS for about one and a half years, is that right?

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, that’s right. We both started around the same time roughly. So yeah, about a year and a half now.

 

Leanne Cummings:

And this is my first job in government. So I’ve joined at an, an exceptionally busy time, and I’m loving every minute of it so far. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah mine too actually. People, I think they’ve stopped saying that it’s not normally like this now. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

But I definitely heard that a lot for the first year, maybe up till last week pretty much. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I thought a timeline might be helpful, because things are moving so quickly. So I’m sure by the time this is published, there’ll be lots more things that the GOV.UK Team has done so we’re just going to be focussed on that initial response. 

 

So some dates. GDS started remote working fully on 17 March. The coronavirus landing page on GOV.UK was published Friday 20 March at midday. Three days later, on Monday 23, the extremely vulnerable people service was launched. And that evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation in a special broadcast. And then that Friday, on 27 March, the business support service was launched. And, on Tuesday 31 March, the first press conference was streamed live from GOV.UK. 

 

So that is an intense period of delivery over a fortnight. And there’s lots of firsts in there - first time working with 100% remote workforce, record numbers visiting the site and the first time a broadcast has happened from GOV.UK. And of course this work continues, it’s not just made live, it’s, it’s always being iterated and scaling up happens. 

 

But let's talk about that first product, the coronavirus landing page. So what, what is the coronavirus landing page, perhaps Markland, you’ll be able to answer that.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, yeah sure. So yeah GOV.UK/coronavirus, it is essentially the, the campaign landing page for all the government content for coronavirus support and information. 

 

We first started working on coronavirus information back in probably January actually. As part of our kind of business as usual stuff, we’re monitoring feedback that the public leaves on the website, and we noticed probably from about mid-January onwards, that we were getting an increasing number of comments and questions from the public around specific areas to do with coronavirus. And it was a real trickle at that stage but it was definitely, we could see it increasing. 

 

And we started working with mainly the Department of Health and Social Care [DHSC] and Public Health England [PHE] on kind of how to bring together some of the content that was being written around that time, and it was mainly in the healthcare space then. 

 

What we came up with was a, what we call, a topical events page, which is a kind of out of the box solution that we have. We could quickly see like throughout the beginning of February, as content was being generated across departments in government and Number 10 is thinking about this from a central point of view, and we could see public feedback and response to the content increasing as well. And we knew at a fairly early stage then that as the crisis escalated, it was going to become not just a healthcare issue but actually incorporating much wider things across government. 

 

As the crisis continued to escalate we knew that we would need something more bespoke to pull things together. And that’s where the conversation around a new bespoke landing page that would replace the kind of ‘out the box’ solution came into being. Once we had made that decision things moved very quickly. Obviously the government was responding extremely quickly to, to the escalation of the, of the crisis. And we knew we needed to get something out ahead of any further government announcement and action for, for UK citizens on coronavirus. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So for, when I was researching this podcast I spoke to Sam Dub, a former guest of this podcast but also a GOV.UK Product Manager, and he said he was yeah, given the brief on Monday and then it went from zero to live in 4.5 days. 

 

Markland Starkie:

And from there like it, we obviously took an MVP [minimal viable product] approach but actually the MVP covered quite a, a large range of user needs to the point where we, we’ve continued to iterate but we haven’t, we haven’t had to drastically change the designs or the functionality of it.

 

So on that Friday yes, the new landing page went live. We worked with the Department of Health [and Social Care] and Public Health England to take down the original topical event page and redirect that stuff through, and that was then in time for the, the Prime Minister announcements that happened in the following days to the public. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

This landing page received heavy traffic, so in the first 24 hours, there were more than 750,000 page views. And, in the first 7 days, there were 18 million page views. And as I was talking about record numbers earlier, there was a huge peak on the 24 March of 9.2 million, which is a record for the biggest ever spike in GOV.UK traffic. 

 

Markland Starkie: 

The thing that the landing page I suppose was able to do over and above the standard solution was really to bring together, in a more consolidated fashion, wider signposts to existing and new content across government. It also allows us the flexibility to redesign or extend or iterate on that landing page at pace, which we’ve been able to do in the, in the week since. So that’s based on ongoing research into the landing page and insights to move certain content around, add certain content that was missing in the first instance, and remove content that’s not working, all of those things.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was also, one of the reasons why it’s been able to be built quickly and iterated quickly, is we’re using other GDS tools that already exist, for example the GOV.UK Design System. Is that, was that, has been part of it as well? 

 

Markland Starkie:

Oh absolutely, yes. So without those things in place, like the Design System that you’ve mentioned, this would take weeks and weeks. So we’ve been able to take existing patterns, modify them where needed to. So being able to bring in elements whilst using existing patterns to really like kind of push it through at pace.

 

Laura Stevens:

And maybe this is a question more towards Leanne as well. This was the first ‘mobile first’ product is that right to say? Why was that important and why did you decide to do it like that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah, I believe it is. I believe it is the first one designed specifically on a mobile with the desktop being the alternative. We decided that, 2 reasons really. 

 

One the data showed us that mobile was increasingly the mechanism by which users are picking up government content, advice and services. And what felt more critical in this particular situation was it felt, there’s a reason for that being, that the coverage of mobile phones was much more prolific across a much wider set of people across the country than, than access to a laptop or access to an iPad could be. 

 

So this one felt absolutely critical that we nailed that experience on a mobile first. And I couldn’t be prouder of a team that turned this around in 4 and a half days with that as a new requirement. And honestly it was completely pushing on an open door, the team were really excited to make sure that in people’s hands, would be this critical information.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah.

 

Leanne Cummings:

So we did, we did a great job of that. And the data that we got, even immediately afterwards, was just absolutely underlined. I think it was something like, in the early days, it was something like 90% plus people were accessing through that mechanism.

 

Laura Stevens:

OK, shall we talk about these 2 new services? In the first week of launch, the extremely vulnerable service received more than 1.4 million page views. And for the second one, business support service, there were more than 40,000 page views in its first 7 days. 

 

But I think we first want to talk about the extremely vulnerable people service. Perhaps Leanne, could you explain what this service does and how it was set up?

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah. It was, it was a request that came from another, other departments actually. They, the NHS teams had acknowledged that there were a group of people that were, that had illnesses, critical illnesses often, that meant they were extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. So that meant that they had needs that had to be met, probably more isolated at home, and that included access to food.

 

So there was a list compiled of people that were likely impacted here, and that we needed to find a mechanism by which they could, they could let us know, let government know whether they needed help or not. So they were going to be contacted directly by the NHS teams via letter initially, and invited to, to go to a service that we built around answering, answering a series of, of simple questions around what their needs were in this situation. And that is the extremely vulnerable people service. 

 

So again we had some experience of building this kind of triage journey, and so that was kind of a, a pattern that we were familiar with, and again a really simple journey flow of what, finding out from you what the need is and how we could help you and then that feeds into a, a database and is, is actioned.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was this able to be stood up quickly because of other GDS work? We mentioned the Design System already but there’s also the GOV.UK Platform as a Service or PaaS. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yes for sure. I mean the shoulders of giants right? 

 

We have a lot of experience of, across GDS, of working at this kind of intense pace and response. So we’re prepared for certain spikes in behaviour that could be led by, obvious examples of that could be led by an election or whatever but we have experience of this kind of service deployment and so could forecast a bit what could happen and be very prepared for that. 

 

So there’s some things we won’t compromise on and stability is, stability and security are 2 of them. And again that, both of those things involve working with a wide range of genius teams across GDS, and wider but definitely across GDS.

 

Markland Starkie:

I do think it’s important to say like, while we have these services available to, across GDS. This is an, the unusualness of this particular situation in bringing all teams together across GDS, so not just GOV.UK as a programme like working on this, but as you say Platform as a Ser--like right across GDS, teams are working together has been a really amazing experience for, for me, myself, Leanne and others. To see that we’ve, we’ve all come together to, to sort this out. It, it’s just, yeah it’s great.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I couldn’t agree with Markland more on that. And our team is absolutely not the only team that has been under a significant amount of intensity, I could wax lyrical about all the teams. I don’t think we’ve got enough time for that. 

 

But Pete [Herlihy] and the Notify Team have worked incredibly hard on an intense period of, the thing that we featured on the landing page is around getting people who are overseas back into the UK and lots of emails going out and, and lots of message and and just such an, a massive amount of work across the group that we should definitely spend future podcasts describing in a massive amount of detail.

 

Laura Stevens:

I like that plug in there as well.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I’m really really available for future podcasts everyone. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And then can we also talk about the business support service.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Sure.

 

Laura Stevens:

Leanne, are you best to speak to that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think, I think we both can but this one is, this one is brilliant for its demonstration of how not only we at GDS are in it together but sort of the country is too. This was stood up to reflect a need for government, and for local authorities and for NHS to, they need a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff ranging from testing equipment, warehousing to keep things and, and lorries and lorry drivers to take things places. And so we stood up a service which allowed businesses to say, ‘yeah I’ve got some time and some people and, and some resources to enable us to pitch in here’. And we stood that up again really quickly, another really dedicated team across GOV.UK and wider GDS. 

 

And within, within I want to say hours but I’ve lost track of time, but within a really short time, 2,000 businesses had offered support across a huge range of, of different services. And honestly we’ve been a little bit emotional some of us across GOV.UK about many things - the, the, the type of work that is going on, the commitment from the teams, the commitment from GDS, the type of work going on across government but this was a real demonstration of, of the commitment of everybody being in this together so we did get a bit emotional, and I can still can so I might take a minute now and have a little moment.

 

Markland Starkie:

And I would also say just that the way we worked, or GDS worked, with departments like the wider Cabinet Office. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

Crown Commercial Service. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

The teams right across government who we really needed input on, to make this work at pace. It’s been, it’s been a real, eye, eye opener for me. I think working in government at this time, to see when it comes down to it we really can make a difference quite quickly.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah. And you don’t need to talk anyone into that, and that’s, and, and probably that is what you’d expect but you, you really don’t. It really is just a, a an exercise in everybody working together to try move things forward and get help to people that need it. 

 

Laura Stevens:

This is the first time that we’ve done a live broadcast from GOV.UK. So these are the daily press conferences, you can watch them from the coronavirus landing page, which is streaming this. And what was sort of the user need behind that, how did that come about being created?

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah it, it was a discussion with us and Cabinet Office Comms Hub and Number 10 around really having a central source for the press conference to be broad-broadcast, and obviously it makes sense that GOV.UK is, is the home for that. We, we provide the platform on which they can, we can stream. So that was built into an iterative, an iteration of the landing page.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I feel like and, if we sit as we do between, digitally between government and the user, it kind of makes sense for us to be showing that. And also reinforces that if you’ve got any queries, online queries about anything that is impactful to you around coronavirus, then this is the place to come and see if you can find that. So that just sort of reinforces that message too. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I, I also wanted to ask now, now we’ve spoken about the landing page and the 2 new services and the live broadcast that was set up, what sort of challenges did you face, and is there anything that you sort of wish you knew before you’d started this process, that would have helped you? And yeah, how have you, how have you sort of tackled that? ‘Cause obviously you’ve been working at such pace, is there sort of, have you had to reflect on those more challenging aspects of it?

 

Markland Starkie:

I, I think that is, it’s an ongoing conversation that we’re having at the moment. And yes, there have been challenges right throughout that. From, I guess from my point of view as Head of Content, it it’s trying to get ahead of and help departments coordinate having user-centred content, so clearly written, accessible content, going up on GOV.UK by yesterday.

 

And we, we realise, I certainly realised, that there is an element of we just need to get information out. And as policy is being decided across government, that information needs to get into the hands of citizens and businesses as quickly as possible and that, that means as we’ve been standing up new processes and new teams across government that have not worked with each other before, that it’s not going to be perfect. And it’s trying to kind of try and build in the processes that make the content better over time and more useful, useful over time.

 

But that’s been a, that’s been a sort of, real thing on my mind over the most couple of weeks is, is how we, we can continue helping government; because this, this is not just a, obviously, this is not just a GDS thing to tackle. There are countless teams across departments right across government who are all working to produce services, who are all working to produce content and define policy as quickly as possible using GOV.UK as the platform to surface these things through. And it’s our job to try and support them as best we can to make sure that those services are accessible, are usable, are clear etc. etc.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think it’s that, I think it’s exactly as Markland describes. I think this is unique, an unique challenge that we’re all facing. I guess it’s a lived experience as well as well as a worked experience so you, you’re experiencing it as a person as also as someone who’s trying to help navigate through it. So that gives you a little bit of insight into how you can really cut to the nub of what you know people might need to understand.

 

But the pace of change on that is, is, is, is rapid. So we have to react to that in, in new ways and put in processes whereby we can reflect on the landing page you know, the most recently announced policy or guidance that means that users who are seeing that are getting the most recent and up to date advice and guidance. So that is, it’s just a pace question really here then, then I’ve known it ever in, in government before.

 

I think there’s something, to answer the question in a slightly different way, there’s some things that I thought would be a bit more challenging; working remotely from teams of people that are used to bouncing ideas off each other, I was a little worried about that initially. When you’re building landing pages or services at pace, then often the best way to do that is get in a room. We’ll probably supply, supply pizza, there’ll definitely be a lot of Haribo. And I thought that was, was gonna be a really big problem. And in some ways it is a problem but not in anywhere near as big as we thought. And the products and services we’ve got out, I think haven't reflected the fact that we’re in 30 different houses across London and the south, it’s reflected a group of people who know what they’re doing, are committed to it, and are used to working in a certain way and they can do that in separate houses. And I think the only thing that I could say is we’re possibly a little bit healthier because of the lack of Haribo. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Agree with that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I also wanted to touch on how this work is tying in with the GOV.UK future strategy. I saw, I watched Jen Allum, the Head of GOV.UK, present her virtual talk at Code for America on Twitter, about how GOV.UK is moving to a place where it helps people with complex interactions by being personalised, low friction and data informed. And how does this work tie into that and, or does it just confirm your initial, your thinking with that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think it ties in directly when we’re thinking about - so the landing page collates information together around certain themes but some of our tooling starts to ask a, a, hopefully a simple set of questions but then enables a real doubling down for the user on the thing that impacts them the most in their particular set of circumstances. And that’s definitely a thing that we’re moving towards because that also acknowledges that, that people that are using these products and services aren’t sort of one dimensional, you’re not just a person with a business, you’re a person with a business and a family. 

 

And so it sort of addresses both those complexities in simple ways, and just tries to make that a bit more personalised to you and your set of circumstances where possible. So I think we’re reflecting the strategy in that way and, and is data driven. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, I’d, I’d really agree with that. Obviously, a lot of the work that we were doing around Brexit over the past year and a half, was kind of like moving towards the early explorations of this set of scenarios you were just suggesting around personalised by consent, device agnostic, all of those things. And that, and that worked helped inform the future strategy that Jen was then talking about, and has been talking about recently. 

 

And this is the way that GOV.UK is going. The, the complex user journeys and complex user needs that Leanne was just talking about, they’re not going away. Like the more we understand about our users, the more individual those users become and the more we need to provide solutions that cater for that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I wanted to talk about something that’s been alluded to throughout this recording, and it’s about the sort of the coping with the stress and the demands of working in this situation. The work being done is under intense scrutiny, it’s high profile and it’s important that it’s right. So how are you both and how are the team, sort of, are there ways of working with this pressure? How, how are you faring with that?

 

Markland Starkie:

I think there’s a lot of swearing. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

There is, there is quite a lot of swearing for sure. I think we’re finding some time to do some regular things. I think we all understand the purpose of all this work, and in a funny way you’re in a luxurious position right? So, I’m telling myself this very much late at night and at the weekends, that you’re in a luxurious position where you can really put your shoulder in and help in a crisis. And a lot of people don’t get to say that, a lot of people this is just sort of happening to and so we are quite lucky, and that is felt across the programme. So, at the best of times, that is the best of times right, in terms of OK you get it, you’re on it. 

 

Markland’s right though. We are also finding time to hang out together a bit. And that’s with you know my peer group but the also the, the product teams where you just get to let off a bit of steam.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah. The teams on GOV.UK have been just incredible in this regard.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

The self organisation, just the pragmatic adult approach to this.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

Everybody recognises the importance of the work that needs to be done, and this is not your normal you know, 9 to 5 whatever situation, and, and people have, where needed, really put in the hours to support the work and get it through. And then worked with each other to, to make sure that they’re getting time off and they can recuperate.

 

And this, this is obviously happening you know, right across government and beyond. Like all businesses are having to kind of reconfigure their working practices. But just seeing, from a personal point of view, just seeing the, however many people we have on the programme, just seeing them kind of self-organise around this and then allow us as kind of senior managers to try and bolster in support and kind of pull in extra people where necessary and where possible, has just been great to see.

 

Leanne Cummings:

And we’ve kept some of the rigour so we have, Jen does, Jen Allum the Head of GOV.UK does a regular weekly programme check in, which is what it says really. ‘Cause I guess that’s another thing, we’re all in this situation where we’re at home, so you definitely see the thing that you’re working on a lot, but you don’t necessarily get to see in the way that you would in a, in regular working office environment. But it’s another way we’re getting, everybody gets to celebrate the successes and help out when there’s a challenge. So there’s, we’ve, we’ve definitely kept to the rigour of how we work in the office a bit, and maybe just upped some of that because to, to cater for the fact that we’re all online.

 

Markland Starkie:

Definitely quite a lot of cats as well. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah, there’s cats. So there’s themes developing, and we definitely know a little bit more about each other than we did previously too. So that’s helping us cope because there’s quite a lot of teasing.

 

Laura Stevens:

And over these sort of, over the first few weeks where it really sort of ramped up, were there, was there any particular moments that stood out to either of you of being particularly like emotional or important or sad or just anything that just really stuck out to you?

 

Markland Starkie:

The first one to me was where we as the senior management team, got together and were like ‘essentially, right this is a thing. We now need to be pausing existing work, re-prioritising, talking to teams about what they need to do, making new teams out of existing teams and figuring out what’s next’. And, and it was that initial conversation that was like ‘right OK, it is time to, time to get on with it’.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think for me, emotional about some of the delivery, which there’s usually a compromise, there’s a cost, there’s a compromise to delivering things rapidly. And I don’t think that the products that we have developed necessarily reflect that. I think that they’re the opposite of that, I think they’re brilliant products. The mobile first was an emotional moment for me on the landing page, for sure. 

 

And then, so all of those things definitely but I think the moments that have really got me more than I thought they would, are when people who are really tired, have done really long days, on Slack channels saying ‘well OK I’ve finished my bit, so does anybody need a hand with anything else?’. And I just feel like that’s the stuff that gets me every time. ‘Cause you wanna say ‘no dude, you definitely need to go and get some sleep now’. But they just wanna roll their sleeves up and get you know, good stuff out the door and that for me, is a sight to see.

 

Laura Stevens:

For sure.

 

So thank you both so much for coming on today, I know you’re both extremely busy so thank you again. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Thank you very much.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

So thank you both again

Government Digital Service Podcast #17: International Women’s Day

Government Digital Service Podcast #17: International Women’s Day

March 9, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And for March's episode, we're going to be celebrating International Women's Day.

 

In 2020 the theme for International Women's Day is 'each for equal'. The worldwide event’s tagline reads, “an equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world, celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, take action for equality”. So from this theme we wrote 3 questions and asked 9 women from across GDS for their opinion.

 

Let’s hear what they had to say. 

 

Which woman inspires you in digital government and why?

 

Charlotte Downs:

I’m Charlotte Downs, and I’m a Graphic Designer in the Communications Team. 

 

So I love this question, but I am going to cop out. I think I find it difficult to find a specific female that inspires me because individually everyone has different aspects to who they are that are great. And I learn from each of those different bits. 

 

So I’m inspired by lots of females, our team is mainly female. And I find that each of them, the resilience that they have and just the energy they bring to work, inspires me to be better in my work and in, and personally. 

 

Liz Lutgendorff:

I’m Liz Lutgendorff, I’m the Senior Research Analyst for the International Team. And as a side gig, I’m also one of the co-chairs of the Women’s Network at GDS.

 

I think I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one, because it’s really hard to pick just one. And especially I, I guess I’d focus on GDS because I most you know, that’s my main source of knowledge. But I think if you pick any person at GDS who’s working here, you’re going to find something really inspirational about them. 

 

Even just about you know, trying something that’s really frustrating to them, but might be easy to someone else, but just like putting yourself out there; if you’re scared of public speaking, people are doing speaker training so they can tell their stories about what they’re doing in digital, even though they’re kind of scared to death of it. 

 

So yeah, I’m just going to have a total cop out and say every single woman at GDS, from our HR people, to our Estates people, to our developers, everyone. Everyone is doing amazing things everyday.

 

Joanna Blackburn:

I’m Joanna Blackburn, I’m Deputy Director for Communications and Engagement here in GDS.

 

There actually, when I was asked this question, there are a lot of women out there who are quite inspirational in terms of breaking barriers, but the first person that really came to mind for me is a lady called Rachel Neaman. Rachael Neaman was, at the time that I met her, the first digital leader in the Department for Health. And at the time I was working at an ALB [arm's length bodies] where I was responsible primarily to move out existing websites onto GOV.UK. 

 

And the reason why Rachel comes to mind for me is because I met her while attending a meeting of very senior people across the Department for Health. And so it was quite an intimidating environment where everybody was of quite senior stature, and here I am in middle management sort of like feeling like an imposter. But I was so inspired by the way she challenged that group of people, and how she said it is their responsibility to drive digital transformation in their work and to role model leadership behaviours so that their teams will do the same. 

 

So for me, she’s one of the, one of those people that I really believe is transformational in digital transformation for government. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Can you tell me a story about gender equality in the workplace?

 

Sanwar Bopari:

I’m Sanwar Bopari, and I’m an Executive Assistant.

 

I’m really interested in the work that the Women’s Network are doing around the gender pay gap. I think it’s really important because it’s never quite transparent and it’s good to make it obvious to everyone.

 

Jen Allum:

I’m Jen Allum, and I’m the Head of GOV.UK.

 

We have diverse panels for recruitment at GDS. And one moment that really struck me recently was interviewing for a role in the GOV.UK programme. And the person we were interviewing referred throughout the interview only to men. So it was all references to he and him. To such a degree that I needed to ask if all of the people that he’d worked with were men. And of course he hadn’t. 

 

But the thing that really struck me about that was not so much that maybe that had happened, but that the colleagues I had on the panel, who happened to be male, hadn’t noticed it until I’d asked the question. 

 

And of course I’ve heard the argument about you know, when you hear ‘he’ what we mean is everyone, but I don’t buy that and language matters. So it was a really underlying moment for me in why we have diversity in our recruitment panels.

 

Leena Taha:

My name is Leena Taha, and I’m a Senior Content Designer on the Brexit Journeys Team. 

 

One of the people who I used to work with before, he would amplify the voices of other women in the room if they were ever ignored. For example, if we were ever in a meeting then, and somebody made a point that was later ignored, he would circle back to it and, ‘say so and so mentioned this earlier which was a good point’. Which really helped to make everybody's voices heard.

 

Laura Stevens:

What will you do this year to make GDS a better workplace for women?

 

Laura Flannery:

Hello I’m Laura Flannery, I’m a Senior Product Manager, I work on GOV.UK.

 

So I have the privilege of being the co-chair of the Women’s Network, I lead and co-ordinate the Women’s Network and the working groups within it. And we have a lot of things planned over the next year to make GDS a better place for women but also for everyone, because the knock on effects of what we do make GDS better for everyone. That’s an important point.

 

We’re working on the gender pay gap. We have a working group and we have an action plan. So we’re using data to understand what interventions are working to make the gender pay gap smaller. We have some training on career progression coming up so we’ll be teaching participants how to define milestones that they need to achieve their goals, helping them to gain clarity and direction and the confidence to pursue their aspirations. We’re also planning some public speaking training so helping people to build confidence, find their voice. 

 

We have a mentoring scheme that we set up a couple of years ago, and we’re going to operationalise that. So we’re handing it over to the People Team, so there is someone who will be looking after it and that is there, that’s part of their job. Because the Women’s Network is a network of volunteers so the fact that we’re able to do that is actually a really great sign and it’s you know, should have good impact across GDS. 

 

We’ve also recently done a survey on period products in the bathrooms. So GDS provides free period products for women, and reviewing that process so we can make it better to meet the needs of women here. And we’re running, we’re going to run lots of campaigns to raise awareness on certain topics, for example the gender pay gap, women's health, lots of other things. 

 

Jennifer Marks:

Hi my name is Jennifer Marks and I’m a Digital Delivery Advisor at the Future Relationships and Expert Services Team at GDS.

 

So I’ve been in GDS coming up to a year, it’ll be my first year anniversary in April, and the one thing I’ve really noticed is the Women’s Network do amazing work but there is one area which I think should really be on the agenda. And that is about women returners; that’s women who have for some reason or other, it’s usually motherhood, sometimes it could be care of relative, have taken career breaks. And they struggle to get back into the workplace, and these are women who, they have immense skill sets and yet because they’ve taken 2 maybe 3 years out of the workplace, or more, the workplace is suddenly closed to them. 

 

And it’s something I really would like to put on the agenda. I think it’s important. These are women who could have so much to offer, they have the skills, the ability and I think that they would be a great addition to GDS, and I’d like to look at how we can bring these women back into the workplace, what we can offer them. And I have had the benefit of working and volunteering with the Women’s Returner Network. Because I was one of those women, and I think it’s important to help promote other women, help other women make sure they have access to work and what they need to really shine through. 

 

Eliška Copland:

My name is Eliška Copland and I work as a Cyber Security Analyst. 

 

So I think that we all know that there is a shortage of women in technology. And it’s one thing to kind of hire more women, and there’s a big push to high more women in technology, but it’s also a completely different method to make them feel like they’re included and a valued addition to the team, and motivate them and drive them to their best. And I think that there are ways that this can be improved. And I think that some teams and some managers do it better than others, and I would like to just understand and learn more about how that, how that can be done. And again I would like to find male allies in this.

 

So that was, that, that’s one thing. I suppose then I also, just because one of the mottos of GDS is to be kind and be generous, I think generally us women in this male dominated field kind of need to be more generously speaking up when some kind of injustice is happening, either to ourselves or to others, but should do it in a kind way. 

 

But I think GDS is a wonderful place to, to work and I can’t stress enough that there isn’t that much injustice happening, and most of the time it’s, you meet absolutely wonderful people in this sector. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to everybody from across GDS who came in to talk today about International Women’s Day. 

 

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read a transcript on PodBean. 

 

So thank you once again to everyone and goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #16: GOV.UK Design System

Government Digital Service Podcast #16: GOV.UK Design System

February 28, 2020

Laura Stevens: 

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And today’s podcast is going to be on the GOV.UK Design System. 

 

The GOV.UK Design System is a collection of tools and resources for designing and building products and services. It provides styles, components and patterns that are accessible. This helps hundreds of teams across the public sector design and build services that are of high quality and can be used by anyone. 

 

The impact of the design system, created and managed by a team of 10 here at GDS, is significant. It’s used in central government, local government and has also been used by the NHS and international governments to develop their own design systems. It saves teams time and money and helps give people a consistent and accessible experience when interacting with government. 

 

To tell us more is Tim Paul, who is on the team who launched the GOV.UK Design System. Tim has also been at GDS for a long time, he was on the team that launched GOV.UK in fact as well. We’re also going to be hearing from people from central and local government about how the GOV.UK Design System has helped their work.

 

So yeah, welcome Tim to the podcast. 

 

Tim Paul: 

Hi there, how are you doing?

 

Laura Stevens:
Thanks for coming on today. And could you tell us what your job is here at GDS and how you work with the GOV.UK Design System?

 

Tim Paul: 

Yeah so I guess my official job title is Head of Interaction Design. But for the last couple of years, I’ve mainly been kind of doing that as a Product Manager really for the Design System. So that’s a thing that we kind of kicked off a couple of years ago and we’ve managed to build a team around that, and develop a suite of products. We launched those back in summer of 2018 and yeah, I’ve been product managing that and working with the team closely ever since.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So the Design System was launched back in July 2018. But what is the Design System made up of?

 

Tim Paul: 

So it’s essentially a suite of 3 different products. So you’ve got the Design System itself, which is basically a website with guidance and coded examples for designers and frontend developers to use to design and prototype and build public services. So that’s the first thing.

 

And then there’s a thing we call the GOV.UK Prototype Kit, and that’s a piece of software that designers in particular can download and install, and they can use it to rapidly create very high fidelity prototypes that they can take into user research. And they can test out ideas before their, their team commits to building anything. So they can find out what the right thing to build is.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul: 

And then the third thing, which underpins both of those, is a thing we call GOV.UK Frontend. And that’s essentially a frontend framework, so it’s all the Javascript and the CSS [Cascading Style Sheets] wrapped up into a nice package that developers can install into their projects. And so the Prototype Kit and the Design System both use GOV.UK Frontend and that means that designers and developers are both drawing from the same kind of library of components and patterns. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I heard you say before that you think of the Design System also as a service as well, what do you mean by that?

 

Tim Paul: 

Yes. So as well as the 3 products that we provide, we also offer support and training. We’ve helped facilitate contributions to the design system and we’ve run community events and we have regular hangouts with our community of users and contributors. So we really think of the whole thing together as being an actual service, and we have you know, a multidisciplinary team to support both the products and that service. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when you were talking about the different parts of the GOV.UK Design System, for people who are listening and don’t know what a component is or a pattern or a style. Could you explain what those things are please? 

 

Tim Paul: 

Yeah, ok, I’ll have a go.

 

So when we first started out - figuring out how to make this thing, we did a lot of thinking about what were the things that were going to be inside the Design System. There’s no really established language for talking about this stuff. Although design systems as an idea are fairly well established now. 

 

So in the end we settled on 3 definitions. And so we have what we call styles. And they’re the really low level building blocks that everything else is made out of. So it’s things like colour palettes and how your typography works and how your page layouts work and your grid system and so on. So those are the styles. 

 

And then one level up from that if you like, we have things that we call components. And so components are chunks of user interface, UI. So they’re visible things that you can compose onto a webpage and that, and, and that makes your service. So it’s things like drop-down lists and tables and navigation and headers and footers. And all our components are built using code, the code that we provide in GOV.UK Frontend. And so that’s what a component is.

 

And finally one level up from that we have things that we call patterns, and patterns are a little bit more abstract. They’re centred around common needs that users of public services have. So for example, lots of public services require that people enter information about themselves like their name or their address and so on, and so we have design patterns which explain the best most usable way that we’ve found, to ask users for that kind of information. 

 

And, we have even higher level design patterns so for example, it’s quite common that a public service has eligibility requirements that, that, that users must meet if they are able to use that service. And so we have a pattern for example, which explains how best to help users understand whether or not they can use your service, so that they don’t waste time trying to apply for a benefit or something that they don’t actually meet the requirements for.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so now I feel like I, I know what it’s made up of, I know what those words mean. But why are design systems good for government? And in a previous presentation I found in the Google Drive in my research, you said the national motto of design system teams is ‘efficiency, consistency and usability’

 

Tim Paul:

Oh yeah, I did say that didn’t I?

 

Laura Stevens:

Would, is that why they’re good or have you changed your mind? 

 

Tim Paul:

I guess, no that’s almost been one of the most stable beliefs that we’ve held throughout the whole kind of time we’ve been developing these resources. There, there do seem to be 3 pretty stable fundamental user needs that things like design systems are good at meeting. And, and that’s that public services needs to be efficiently built, we don’t want our tax payers’ money to be wasted in people like reinventing the wheel up and down the country in different teams.

 

They need to be of a high quality. So they need to be really accessible and usable. And they need to be consistent with each other. So one of the big reasons that we made GOV.UK in the first place was to try and create a single unified consistent user experience for all government services because that helps people to be familiar with those services, which means that it makes them more usable. But it also kind of fosters trust because it’s much easier to recognise when you’re using a legitimate government service if they all look the same. 

 

And the way that design systems help with those things is that you have this common suite of components and patterns that are ready made, pre-built, they’ve already been tested for things like usability and accessibility. And so that lifts up the quality because people are re-using existing things, it means that they’re not developing them themselves so that makes teams more efficient and productive. And again because they’re re-using the same suite of components and patterns, it means that different services made by different teams in different parts of the country in different departments, are all consistent with each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think that’s a point that I wanted to pick up on, is because I think as a user coming to GOV.UK, it looks like it’s just one big website.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

But it’s actually being managed, and being delivered simultaneously, by different teams up and down the UK. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yes. So like you say GOV.UK presents as this single, quite large website that’s full of different services and information and that’s entirely intentional, that was always the vision for GOV.UK. But we, anybody who’s worked on it knows that under the hood, it’s hundreds and hundreds of separate websites and they're owned and managed by different teams in different departments up and down the country. There is no single tech stack for the public sector or for government, there’s hundreds and hundreds of different ones and we don’t try to control what that stack should be. 

 

And so the challenge that we’ve always faced is like how do we let all of those teams work pretty much independently of each other, but deliver something which is coherent and consistent and feels like a single user experience. And this is, this is what design systems are really good at because they, they provide this centralised resource that all teams can draw upon and contribute back to. 

 

So not every organisation, or large organisation, requires a design system necessarily but I think government is maybe almost the best example of an organisation that can benefit from, from a tool and a service like this.

 

Laura Stevens:

So yeah, we’ve got GOV.UK as this, appearing as one site but actually being operated by lots and lots of different teams up and down the country. So is that who’s using the Design System, all these different service teams?

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, so we think that most users of the Design System are probably designers or developers working in, on, in services teams in different departments up and down the country. And we’ve tried lots of different ways to measure usage, it’s important that we know who’s using our service and how and what problems they might be facing, so that we can improve the service for them.

 

So one thing we have looked at in the past is, is web traffic. That’s just visitors to the Design System website. And that’s quite useful for showing month on month growth. I think since we launched, we’ve grown the number of visitors to the site by about 250%. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So impressive figures.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, yeah! It’s, we’re happy with that.

 

Laura Stevens:

I wanted to ask about the community element of the Design System. So people are able to contribute their own patterns and how, so in terms of the number of patterns or number of components now, are most of them done in GDS or do, are they generally done from people who have contributed? How does that work? 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. So from the outset really, we wanted to make sure that what we built was owned by the community of designers and developers in government, and was easy to contribute back to. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that we’re, GDS is at the centre of government and that’s really helpful as a way to kind of propagate out best practice and so on, but it does mean that we’re kind of one step removed from the actual end users of citizen facing services and staff systems and so on. It’s really the teams in the other departments that are closest to those users. And so we really rely on them to feedback into the Design System about, about whether components or patterns are working or not. Maybe they’ve found ways to improve upon them, maybe they have ideas for brand new components and patterns that, that we don’t realise are needed. And so like I say, from the very beginning we were trying to figure out ways to, to kind of foster a community of collaboration and contributors. 

 

And so we initially populated the Design System with maybe about 30 or 40 components and patterns that we already knew were needed by government. Some of those we brought in from our previous design tools. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

But since then we’ve had about 18 new components and patterns published over the last year and a bit. And I think of those 18, about 13 of them have been external contributions. So things that have been built by people in service teams somewhere else in government, from MoJ [Ministry of Justice] or DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] or HMRC [HM Revenue and Customs] and so on, and then contributed back to the Design System. 

 

And so we from kind of experience with our previous tools, our legacy products, that contribution is difficult and it certainly doesn't happen for free and it doesn't happen at all unless you do a lot of work to facilitate it and so on. So we put a lot of effort into developing the necessary processes and the governance and the assurance so that when people made a contribution, they knew what to expect and they knew the criteria that they needed to meet and that there were people available to support that contribution. And then other people who are available to kind of assure the quality. 

 

So what we’re hoping is this, by this, by making this process really open, it kind of encourages trust in what we’re doing, and it means that the work that we’re publishing isn’t biased, in favour of any one department and so on. And that it, and that it actually reflects the needs of teams in government.

 

Laura Stevens:

So how does it make you feel having so many patterns and contr-and components now being able to be contributed? Because, this, this hard work of making it decentralised, making it open is working.

 

Tim Paul:

It, I think it is working, I think we’ve learnt a lot along the way. We’ve certainly learned that it’s harder than we thought it would be. I mean we thought it would be hard, but it’s even harder than we thought it would be. I think perhaps we were tempted to think in the early days that contribution was like a shortcut to scaling.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

That like by opening our doors and letting people contribute, we could grow rapidly and it would like solve all our problems that way. And actually over the last year or so, I think what we’ve realised is that facilitating and assuring contributions is often as much work as doing the work yourself. We should probably have realised that at the time. And so I think it does let us scale but not to the extent that perhaps we thought it would.

 

So yeah, we think that aside from scaling, there are other real concrete benefits to, and I’m encouraging contribution on one of those, is that when people make successful contributions to the Design System, they tend to be pretty strong advocates so they almost act as like people doing engagement in departments on our behalf.

 

But also, and perhaps more importantly, the more people from service teams in other departments make contributions to the Design System, the more representative the Design System is of what those teams need. And so it just really helps us make sure that our product is actually genuinely meeting the needs of our users. 

 

If we were doing all the work ourselves in the centre, then, then there’d be a really strong risk that what we were producing was only really meeting the needs of the teams that we were closest to. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think that leads very nicely on. Because we’re now going to hear a clip from somebody who uses the Design System who isn’t from GDS.

 

Tim Paul:

Ah.

 

Laura Stevens:

It’s from Adam Silver, who previously worked at the Ministry for Justice, or MoJ Digital. So yeah and MoJ is the second largest of the 24 ministerial departments, so it’s a big department.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And yeah, he’s going to talk about using the GOV.UK Design System and also about the MoJ specific Design System as well. 

 

Adam Silver:

I’m Adam Silver, I’m an Interaction Designer working at the Department for Education, and previously I’ve worked at MoJ Digital and HMCTS [HM Courts & Tribunals Service] as well.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could I talk to you about your work with the GOV.UK Design System on the service claim for the cost of a child’s funeral, which is a highly emotional service and also one that had to be delivered at pace in 6 weeks in fact. So how did having this centralised system help you in that?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah so we used the MoJ form builder, which is a tool that lets you create and deploy digital forms live, live to a URL without spinning up your own dev team. And under the hood, that form builder uses all of the components and patterns of from the GOV.UK design system. So that meant we didn’t have to spend a whole load of time thinking about text boxes, radio buttons and all of, all of the good stuff that’s already been solved brilliantly. And we could just focus on the specific needs of our service, and filling in the gaps where the GOV.UK Design System didn’t have a solution for that.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so in that way, was it saving you time, was it saving you hours of work, what was it helping you with?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah, it saved, saved a lot of time. Because instead of focusing on all those things we could focus on just the needs of our service. So for example, we needed to think about how to ask users for their bank details because we needed to make a payment for them for their claim. And we also focused on things like how to upload files because they had to provide evidence for their claim by uploading copies of their receipts. And those, those 2 particular components and patterns aren’t covered really in the GOV.UK Design System. So that’s where we could really focus our attention.

 

And the other thing was that when we were doing an accessibility audit before we launched, we could focus most of our attention on the new patterns that we knew might not be up to the level of quality, or level of accessibility, that all of the other components that, like the text boxes and radio buttons in the GOV.UK Design System. 

 

Just that it’s so, so real, it’s just so good. Just the quality of the guidance, the quality of the patterns, the components themselves is excellent. It plays really nicely into the prototype kit. And when I have worked on department specific design systems, it plays nicely with those ‘cause. So we’ve, we’ve... At HMCTS and MoJ Digital, we had our own department design systems and we had to extend and build on top of the GOV.UK Design System. So that was, that was another really good thing. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Could you sort of speak then to how important having this centralised GOV.UK design system is to different departments across government?

 

Adam Silver: 

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean we have several services at MoJ that were asking people for their bank details. And during our research there are many many government departments that have many many services of their own that are also asking for their bank details. So there is a lot of duplication of effort there and a lot of inconsistency between them. Not, not major inconsistency but little inconsistencies and those can, those things can, can add up to creating a less than ideal, tricky user experience. 

 

So having that centralised and standardised in GOV.UK Design System adds a tremendous amount of value along with everything else that is centralised in, in the system.

 

Laura Stevens:

How does the community behind the design system help you in your work?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah, so well, that’s, it’s majorly helpful. It’s one of my favourite things about working in gov [government] actually, is, is the huge design community who are just willing to, to help. On, on Slack, there’s like thousands of people on there and they’ve, there’s always somebody that’s either come across your exact problem or they’ve come across something similar and can help out.

 

And then the backlog itself, or, or the more specific help around the design system, I mean the team are real-super friendly. You get to know them individually, they’re always there to, to help. And having someone dedicated on support each, each day on Slack is, is massively massively helpful, knowing that you can go to one place to get help is, yeah, I can’t, I can’t just, I can’t commend it enough really. It’s super valuable to me and it’s, I know that it’s been super valuable to other people I’ve worked with as well. 

 

The community backlog is really good because if there isn’t something in the design system then you know that there’s going to be...well there’s a very very good chance that somebody has put their own designs into the backlog. Just some screenshots, just some explanation and then some discussion. And that, that will get you going so you don’t have to start, you’re never, you’re never really starting something from scratch because somebody has always done something. And somebody, sorry. Sometimes somebody has done more than something. There’s, there's a lot of contributions on some of the backlog tickets as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So Kellie Matheson, who works at MoJ Digital, also spoke at Services Week 2020 about having two Design Systems and working with that. How do you, how, what’s been your experience of using two design systems at once?

 

Adam Silver:

So it’s not, it’s not the ideal situation. It’s because, the reason why I think design systems appear in departments is, is because, well for 2 reasons. One is that GOV.UK Design System just can’t go fast enough in accepting contributions which is kind of what I was talking about earlier. They’re just not resourced enough I don’t think. It takes a lot of effort to build out a component.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Adam Silver: 

So that, that’s one reason where a department could move a little bit faster. Quality might be a tad lower but they can move a bit faster. Because they’re not worrying about the needs of the whole of government, they’re just worrying about the needs of their department of the needs of a programme within a department, sometimes that’s the case. And the other reason is because there are literally department specific patterns. But I see it as a temporary solution while, until the GOV.UK Design System can pull those patterns in. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you, on your blog post, you also contributed a pattern along with your colleagues Amanda Kerry and Gemma Hutley, what was that pattern?

 

Adam Silver: 

That was how to ask users for their bank details. So as part of the, as part of the Child Funeral Fund service that we were designing, the main, the main point was that the user is claiming back the costs. So to do that they need to provide their bank details and that way we can, during the claims process, make that payment to them. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And what was it like to contribute your own pattern to that, or your team's pattern to that?

 

Adam Silver:

The reason why I wanted to contribute the bank details pattern was because while we were designing the service, there was no actual pattern existing for the bank details. And we looked in the backlog and we talked to people across government and in our own department as well, and there was no, there was no solid example of how to, how to ask for it. There was lots of different good examples but there was no one way. So that’s something that we had to tackle during the 6 week period. 

 

And so it would have been a real, it would have saved us a lot of time if that did, if that pattern was part of the GOV.UK Design System. So we thought ok well look, we’ve learnt quite a bit about it by searching around what other people have done, and we made a decision ourselves for our service. So why don’t we use what we’ve learnt, work a little bit harder and contribute it back. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So I’m sitting here with Tim Paul...And so you can ask him anything, what do you ask him?

 

Adam Silver:

Hi Tim, I would ask you how to quantify the value of a design system?

 

Laura Stevens:

So a nice easy question there. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, thanks Adam! 

 

Laura Stevens:

But I did actually hear there was, I did actually see this was, this was your talk in Services Week 2020, wasn’t it?

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. Yeah. So first of all, that was really good to hear from him. And yeah. One of the things we’ve always known that we need to do, and any team will need to do, is to somehow quantify the benefits of the thing that you’re delivering. Design systems are no exception. But it is quite hard to do that because of the nature of the service and the products I think. They’re not transactional services, you can’t watch people kind of go through them, people aren’t signed in when they use it and so measuring how many people are using your service and product is tricky enough.

 

And then quantifying the actual material benefits is also not that easy. It’s all about productivity and that’s quite a hard thing to measure. These aren’t small tasks that can be done in a few minutes where you can, can easily measure how much faster people get. These are tools which help people over the course of days and weeks and months in quite unpredictable and subtle ways. 

 

So we’ve always struggled a little bit. Although I think this quarter we’ve gotten a little bit better at this stuff. And so we were joined by Roxy, who’s a Product Manager in GDS, and she’s really helped us deliver a kind of economic model and, and a business case for how, how much benefit the Design System is, is giving people. And so we did a fair amount of research, we did lots of analysis of things like repos on Github. 

 

And we fed all of this information into an economic model, we worked with an economist called Parri. We, we, we had lots of other data points. Our user researcher Rosie did, at quite short notice, did some really good research where we interviewed around 10 designers and dev-developers from different departments, and we got them to talk about their experience of using our tools. We got them to do the very uncomfortable thing of like trying to, trying to tell us how much more or less productive they were using our tools and not using our tools.

 

Laura Stevens:
Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

Which is a, it’s a really tough ask. But people did tell us and we got enough data points that we figured taking an average and going with a conservative version of that average was sufficient. And so feeding all of this stuff together, and thinking about how many teams are actually using our products and for how long and so on, we got to a kind of round figure of, we think we’re probably saving the government about £17 million pounds a year right now 

 

And that’s based on the assumption that without the Design System, government would need to spend about that much money to deliver the same services of a similar quality. So yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And were you, did you think the figure would be about £17 million or did you...

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah..I don’t know. I guess it was higher than maybe I was expecting.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. Yeah. But one of the things we’re really keen to do is focus as much as we possibly can on, on the more qualitative benefits of Design Systems.

 

Laura Stevens:

Sure.

 

Tim Paul:

Rather than treating them as a kind of efficiency tool. They definitely do help teams work more productively but what we’re really hoping is those teams use their excess capacity to deliver better services. And so Adam kind of touched on that. Because they don’t have to worry about checkboxes, and radio buttons and headers and footers and making those all accessible and usable, they can spend that time that they’ve saved focusing on the actual service itself, and the content design, and the service design and the policy design and so on. And that’s really where the gains are to be had for individual service teams.

 

Laura Stevens:

Adam also referenced about how there are other individual organisations using their own design systems, they’ve made up their own design systems. Why do you think places have created their own versions?

 

Tim Paul:

There have always been other design resources made by other teams and departments in government, and that should come as no surprise. For the most part these are people with quite similar missions and goals to ourselves.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

They’re trying to solve the same problems but at the level of their individual programme or department. And so a couple of years ago when we were initiating this work, we made a conscious decision to, to not treat them as rivals or competitors or in some way a symptom of failure. They’re really just people who are trying to solve the same problem.

 

And so we, r-rather than go around and try and s-shut them down or anything like that, we made friends with these people, these people are now contributors and we try and work closely together with them 

 

Laura Stevens:

And not only is the GOV.UK Design System helping in central government, but it’s also being, helping across the public sector in local government and the NHS. And we’re now going to hear from Emma Lewis, from Hackney, about her experience of using the Design System in a local authority. 

 

Emma Lewis:

I’m Emma Lewis, I am the Lead Frontend Developer at the London Borough of Hackney. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

What is the London Borough of Hackney doing with design systems?

 

Emma Lewis: 

So we have our own Hackney Design System and Hackney Pattern Library, and both of those are based on top of GOV.UK Design System and GOV.UK frontend respoistry. So we have our pattern library is called LHB Frontend. Which is essentially a copy of GOV.UK frontend which also imports GOV.UK frontend and we build on top of that. 

 

So we have a bunch of different components, some of which are basically identical to the GOV.UK components but they have sort Hackney, ‘Hacknified’ styles or small colour changes, spacing tweaks, things like that. We have some components that are actually identical to GOV.UK and some components that are completely new to Hackney because they're more local government focused.

 

Laura Stevens: 

What have been the benefits to you working in local government, for using a central government design system?

 

Emma Lewis: 

I mean it’s been huge. So having all of these things just out of the box sort of we can use, it’s such an enormous time saver. But also having things like we, you know, we know they are accessible. So it means the services that we’re providing to residents and staff are so much better than they would have been otherwise. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I think a lot of people respond to with the GOV.UK Design System is also that community element of it. Has that helped you as well at the council?

 

Emma Lewis: 

Enormously. There’s no-one else really experienced at frontend development that I work with, and having that community of people who I can ask questions to, is such a positive thing. And likewise I am so grateful for the GOV.UK Design System that it means I want to contribute and I think other people feel like that. 

 

So I’ve contributed a couple of pull requests that are like really really tiny minor changes but feels good to do that. And it’s something that I want to do. And I think you see that with other people in the community who aren’t necessarily working centrally at GDS but have benefited from it so want to contribute something.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Why is having a design system a good thing for local government?

 

Emma Lewis: 

It’s...there are lots of different reasons. The main, the first reason is consistency. So it means that you know, any of our products that use that design system are going to look the same and that means, that’s really good for lots of different reasons. It means we’re not duplicating code in lots of different places. So you know, if something changes we don’t need to update it in loads of different places, there’s just a central place where all of that stuff comes from. And that’s something that developers love.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

But also I think accessibility is a huge thing. The time and resourcing that goes into making a design system like GOV.UK, like I’ve never seen the amount of effort that goes into a component be put into that kind of thing outside of a design system. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

And so making sure that it is accessible means that it’s usable by all of our residents and that’s really important. And we, one of our missions at Hackney is to create digital services that are so good that people prefer to use them.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

And in order to do that, they need to be available to work for everyone and that’s like incredibly important.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So this is a bit of a, like a retrospective question. What do you wish you knew, or to anybody who is listening from a local authority, from a local borough, before you started creating the Hackney Pattern Library?

 

Emma Lewis: 

I think 2 things that spring to mind. One of which is how important your decisions are when you start doing something like that. So I think I hadn’t appreciated how difficult it can be to change things down the line. And this is something that...so Nick [Colley] and Hanna [Laasko] who work on GOV.UK frontend actually we’re really kind and came into Hackney to talk to us about the design system. And they were talking about how hard it is, or how bad it is to make breaking changes.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

So you know, changes to the design system or pattern library that are going to break things for users of the older versions. And that’s something that I wasn't, I hadn’t really thought about much until that conversation. And now, we’re sort of 6 months into our first version of our pattern library, and I’m starting to see, ‘oh I wish I’d done that differently’. And you know really feeling empowered to take the time at the beginning and think about those considerations about how you’re doing something and whether it is the right thing and what possible use cases there might be down the line, can be really helpful.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how, what are people using it, what sort of stage are you at?

 

Emma Lewis: 

So I’m doing some work at the moment with our mapping team, who create all sorts of maps for residents and for staff to look at, from things like where water fountains are, are in the borough to planning applications and all sorts of different things. And we’re coming up with, I suppose sort, it’s sort of similar to a design system in a way, we’re trying to come up with this sort of map template that we can use to show all different kinds of data. And I was just showing them really quickly yesterday how to use the design system to put a header and footer on the page, and their faces were just like lit up. It was so exciting that this was suddenly all available to them. 

 

Like using the GOV.UK design system has been an incredible time saver. Like I can’t, we wouldn’t have a pattern library now if we’d had to build everything from scratch. It just. We have so many different projects on and we don’t have the people to build something like that, and by having that, it’s mean that, not only that we can use it on projects going forward, but we’re also massively reducing the amount of time it takes to build all those individual projects as well. So it’s been, it’s just been enormous in terms of the time it saved and like I said, the community around it. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

The support that’s been provided with it. 

 

Tim Paul:

That was really really nice to hear that. It’s so, so gratifying I think to all of us on the team when other people reuse our work. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

It’s one of the best things about working in government and in the public sector is that we can be happy about the fact that people are stealing our work. In fact we kind of strongly encourage it. So yeah, that’s, that’s great. It’s, it’s doing exactly what we hoped it would do. 

 

So we’ve known for quite a while there’s huge potential beyond central government for, for the work that we’re doing, not just ourselves but alongside our contributors, to, to benefit local government and even as far as international governments. We’ve, we’ve got I think we know about 5 different local authorities which are in some way using GOV.UK Frontend, and we’ve got a couple of other governments from other countries who are using our work as well. So this is really really good.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in both those clips, both Emma and Adam, they both spoke about accessibility and how having it tested to the level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that right?

 

Tim Paul:

That’s correct, yeah. 

 

So this is, this has turned out to be a huge driver I think for adoption of the Design System because there this standard called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it’s been around for a while, it’s in version 2.1 now. But the thing that has changed recently is that meeting level double A of that standard has now become an actual requirement, not just of central government services but the whole of the public sector by this September. 

 

And so suddenly there’s a real strong need by teams everywhere to make their services fully accessible. And that’s pretty difficult. There’s lots you can do it make it easier like building in accessibility from the very beginning is probably the best way you can make your life easier here. Retrofitting accessibility is, is always a terrible experience for everybody. 

 

But it turns out that making even simple things like buttons fully accessible across the full range of assistive technologies, devices and browsers, is actually pretty involved, difficult work. You’ve got lots of testing to do, you’ve got, the state of assistive technologies at the moment is still probably not as mature as it could be, which means there are lots of weird little bugs and kinks.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

Funny little idiosyncrasies across all the different technology stacks. And so the work that we do in the centre is to do all of that testing and iron out all of those bugs and figure out how to make these things work across all of the assistive techs that we know that people use. And that level of work, that depth of work is probably not a thing that an individual service team could or should be spending its time doing. They’ve got the full service to worry about and they really shouldn’t be spending the amount of time that we can spend on, on making low level components fully accessible. 

 

So it’s one of the things I’m happiest about because it’s something that we can really contribute to.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in, you mentioned as well that we’re not only helping central government, local, NHS but we’re also going abroad as well. And in March 2019, the New Zealand Digital Service published a blog about how they used the GOV.UK Design System to help create their own. So, and they had a quote in there saying: “We decided not to reinvent the wheel so we’re building on the GOV.UK Design System, a system with years of development. It’s a mature and proven Design System with full rigour and accessibility and testing”. So what does having that sort of reach and international impact feel like for you and the team here at GDS?

 

Tim Paul:

It’s really nice, it’s kind of flattering. Yeah it also feels a little bit scary.

 

I think Emma alluded to the issue of having dependencies and breaking changes and things like design systems. And that’s a thing that we’ve experienced as well. So if you’re working on a service team in an agile environment, then the idea that you can iterate rapidly and fail fast and all of that, it’s great, it works really well. It doesn’t quite translate when you’re building a central code resource because if you’re iterating rapidly, if you’re failing fast, if you’re making lots of breaking changes, then you’re disrupting the work of everybody who’s relying on your code base. And so we end up being a lot more conservative, we end up moving slower and at a much measured kind of careful pace. And that’s because we are intensely aware that everybody using our tools is going to be disrupted by any breaking changes we make.

 

And so when we hear that you know, another country or local government authority is using our service, it’s really really good but it really hammers home to us how careful we have to be not to break things for them as well.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think there’s a way of fixing that? Or is that just an inherent problem with having a central design system?

 

Tim Paul:

I think probably the way to address that challenge is to not try to create some uber design system for the world, which would be the egotistical response to that challenge. 

 

You know the internet is supposed to be made up of many parts loosely coupled, and that’s what we should be trying to do here. So making sure that people can use our tools as the foundation for the things they need, and that we have nice productive feedback mechanisms between, between those. That’s probably the right way to approach this.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is there anything where you’ve seen the Design System used in a way that you just never expected it to be used, or it popped up somewhere that you...

 

Tim Paul: 

We’re, we’re sometimes asked about doesn’t, don’t, don’t these products make it really easy to make fake versions of GOV.UK, which is a really valid question. And the answer is yes, they do. They make it easy for anybody to make things look like GOV.UK. But to be honest if your motivations are to trick people, then it’s always been pretty easy to make fake versions of a website. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

So we’re not making it that much easier for the scammers, but we’re making it a lot easier for the service teams who are building legitimate services. But yes, every now and then we see, we see a dodgy looking GOV.UK site and we see our own code in there, and that’s kind of weird but you know there’s a whole bit of GDS which is dedicated to spotting that stuff and getting it taken down so.

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you so much to Tim to coming on today and also to Emma and to Adam for talking about the GOV.UK Design System. And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read the transcript of Podbean. 

So thank you again and goodbye.

 

Tim Paul:

Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast #15: Accessibility

Government Digital Service Podcast #15: Accessibility

January 30, 2020

 

Laura Stevens:

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast, and the first one of the decade. My name is Laura Stevens and for regular listeners of the podcast, I now have a new job title as Creative Content Producer here at GDS.

 

And for the first podcast of 2020 we’re going to be speaking about accessibility. Everybody has to interact with government, people cannot shop around and go to different providers so there’s an obligation for government to make its services as accessible as possible. At GDS accessibility is considered in everything we do. It’s one of our design principles, we publish accessibility guidance on GOV.UK and we want to make sure there are no barriers preventing someone from using something.

 

And to tell us more about accessibility at GDS, I have Rianna Fry and Chris Heathcote. Please can you both introduce yourselves and what you do here at GDS. So Rianna first.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, so I’m Rianna and I am a Senior Campaign Manager here at GDS. So my job is helping to tell more people about all the great stuff that GDS does. And one of the main things at the moment is accessibility. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And Chris?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Hi, I’m Chris Heathcote, I’m a Product Manager and Designer at GDS. So I’m running the team that will be monitoring websites for accessibility going forward.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes, and there’ll be more on that later in the podcast.

 

So I just thought a good place to start, because as I mentioned GDS has to design for everyone, so to give a sort of sense of the needs of the population we’re designing for I have a few statements for you both. And I’m going to ask you whether they’re true or false. 

 

  1. So true or false, 12 million people in the UK have some kind of hearing loss.

 

Rianna Fry: 

True.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That sounds true.

 

Laura Stevens: 

It is true. Second statement. 6.4 million people in the UK have dyslexia. 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That sounds true as well.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, it does.

 

Laura Stevens: 

It is true as well. And thirdly, 2 million people in the UK have significant sight loss. 

 

Rianna Fry:

True. 

 

Chris Heathcote:

At least 2 million I would have thought, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. You are correct, they’re all true.

 

Rianna Fry:

Do we, do we win something?

 

Laura Stevens:

I’m afraid I didn’t bring a prize and now I’m being shamed, I’m sorry. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Right, OK. Sorry.

 

Laura Stevens: 

But all these stats are from the GDS accessibility empathy lab. And this is a space at GDS which helps raise awareness about accessibility, and also is an assistive technology testing space. And there’s another poster in the lab that says when you design services, you need to think about permanent, temporary and situational accessibility needs. 

 

What does that mean?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So I think I’ll touch on situational accessibility needs. So for me that was one of the most sort of light bulb moments when I came to work on this project with Chris and the rest of the team. So often when we talk about accessibility, I think a lot people naturally think about disabilities that people might have, like motor disabilities or sight impairments for example. 

 

But obviously at some point, they’re, we’re in situations that prevent us from being able to use digital services, perhaps in the way that they’re initially intended. So if you just think about social media. So my background is in digital marketing so thinking about videos. Obviously captions are massive and subtitles for videos because when you’re on the tube, you can’t always hear what you’re listening to.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So thinking about those kind of things was really sort of key for me, you know. When we build things or create content, we want as many people to see and use these things as possible. So considering all the factors that may prevent people from using something in one way, I think that’s what it’s about.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah, I mean at GDS we’ve always considered that wherever there is a web browser people will try and use that to interact with government.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So right from the start, we saw people doing passport applications on their PlayStations. And we’ve seen…

 

Laura Stevens:

Really?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. So we’ve seen mobiles, you know are now more than 50% of traffic often. And so we, what we, you know accessibility is just one way to make sure that people can always use the services and the content that we provide. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah I think definitely what you’re saying about mobiles as well. Because I looked up Matt Hobbs, who’s the Head of Frontend Development at GDS, tweeted about the November 2019 GOV.UK stats, and mobile was over 50%. It was 52.86%. 

 

Rianna Fry:

Absolutely, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I guess part of this is also thinking like why is it particularly important that government is a leader in accessible services. Like what, why is that so important?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean as you said at the beginning, you know you don’t choose to use government, you have to use government. So you can’t go anywhere else. So it’s, it’s our obligation to make sure that, that everything is accessible to everyone. And it does have to be everyone, and especially those with disabilities, or needing to use assistive technology, tend to have to interact with government more. 

 

So we do have an obligation for that.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think if you think about it, these are public services. They’re online public services so they need to be able to use, be used by the public not exclusive groups. And I think that’s what it's all about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And sort of on that, or leading on from that, I wanted us to talk about GDS as leaders in digital accessibility. So at GDS, we’ve, we set up the cross-government accessibility community, the Head of Accessibility for government sits at GDS and as mentioned, it’s one of our design principles. So we want to design for everyone. 

 

And from your work here at GDS, do you have any sort of examples of where GDS has led in accessibility? So for instance you were talking there about assistive technology, and I know that GOV.UK, there’s a lot of work done on GOV.UK to make sure that it works with assistive technology.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes, I mean especially as sort of the standards for accessibility have changed over the last 7, 8 years that GDS has existed. We’ve always made sure that our code works on everything and for all assistive technology. And also we’ve made you know, now with the [GOV.UK] Design System made it possible for the, all services in government to take that and so they don’t have to do the work as well. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how can people use the Design System, if they’re listening and they don’t quite know what the Design System is. Can you explain it a bit please?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So I mean if you go to the GOV.UK Design System site, it provides basically all the code you need to make something look and feel like GOV.UK. You know we’ve always said that GOV.UK is a single domain for government, and that services in central government should look and feel like GOV.UK and be linked from GOV.UK.

 

And if you use our code, it means you get all the usability and accessibility benefits that we’ve spent a lot of time and effort to make sure work really well. And you get that basically for free. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, and it’s also I guess you’re sharing the, as you were just talking about, you’re sharing the hard work. So if you’re a smaller organisation or you don’t have that sort of technical capability, you’re saying it’s already there. We can, you can just go to the...

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes, we saw that every, basically every service in government was spending 6 months or more, you know writing code that’s basically the same.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That’s why the Design System exists, and is so popular. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And have you seen any sort of examples of…

 

Rianna Fry: 

Well I think, I think you mentioned this near the beginning as well, the accessibility empathy lab.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So that’s sort of a space for people to really experience some of the impairments that people may have, and really put them in that space. And I think that really helps to bring things to life. Because it’s really easy to forget or not consider what some needs might be. And I’ve been along to some of the tours there and it’s, it’s great to see people in all different roles coming from all different kinds of organisations sort of using the different personas that are in that lab, to think differently about how web pages should be built.

 

And also even you know, the words that we use. And I think that sort of in line with what Chris was saying, there’s also the, the style guide. Because we often forget as a communicator, plain English is really important, that’s like a basic thing.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

That most people know about and practice, but don’t necessarily consider as part of accessibility. And I know when I worked at the council we used the GOV.UK Style Guide as like the basis because we knew that there was a lot of research and it’s ongoing.

 

And also like as Chris said, you know it’s not just people within GDS that inform this work. It’s across government and also some of the wider public sector. There’s great communities that are sharing really great work in this space, and that all feeds in. 

 

Laura Stevens:

No I think that’s really interesting as well what you’re saying because you came from a local government background into central government. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you were able to use some of those sort of GDS or cross-government tools, and you were able to pick them up and use them. That’s really good.

 

Rianna Fry:

Yeah, absolutely yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And, and you mentioned there that a lot of the work in accessibility it’s not, it’s not, even though a lot of it sits at GDS, it’s contributed to by people across the accessibility community across government. 

 

We’ve got a cross-government accessibility community, which has more than 1,200 people in the Google group. And are you involved in the community Chris or?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Well I’m on the email..

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

And I will, and I respond to questions about the accessibility monitoring. Yeah, I mean it’s I think, because accessibility cuts across so many different jobs in government, so it isn’t just the people that, that do accessibility auditing day in and day out and,but we now have those across government. 

 

But you know, all frontend developers, all designers, all user researchers tend to need to know something about accessibility, and have questions and even though they’re not you know, full time professionals in this, the community’s there to help everyone understand what we’re looking for and how to consider accessibility in everything they do.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And do you think that’s sort of been a shift because Rianna was mentioning like how in the lab, you get people of all different job titles in, and that’s sort of shift in making accessibility part of everyone’s job, not just people who have accessibility in their job title. Like neither of you 2 have accessibility in job title for instance.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. I mean I think that’s been a big change like it was with design before and user research. It isn’t just a separate specialist, even though we need the specialists to you know, do the work.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah yeah, of course.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

It’s something that everyone has to consider as they do their job. So especially like frontend developers, we expect them to be testing their code for accessibility at, just as they are doing it. Which means that when they do do an audit and a specialist comes in and looks at the site, there shouldn’t be any surprises.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think that’s one of the, so Richard Morton, who’s the Interim Head of Accessibility across government, that’s one of the things that he says, is that actually the ambition for his role is that there won’t, in the future, need to be specialists necessarily because everybody has a, a level of understanding about it. 

 

Obviously that’s a long way off.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

And also I guess he doesn’t want to talk himself out of a job.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah! Exact--and that I mean, he does follow it up with that.

 

But I think, I think that’s what’s really nice about the community is that you have got people, so for example the designer that I’ve worked on, Charlotte, with the campaign for accessibility. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Is this Charlotte Downs?

 

Rianna Fry: 

Charlotte Downs, yeah. So since she’s been working that, she’s just sort of, her mind has been blown by all this information that’s out there. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And she’s now a go to person with GDS for design - accessible design - particularly around PDFs. And I think that’s the thing, sort of as you sort of get into it, it’s really easy to become really passionate about accessibility because it’s all about doing the right thing. And I think particularly within GDS, and actually most digital based roles I would say, it’s all about users. And accessibility, that’s what it’s all about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I’ve heard people refer to the PDF mountain in government. What does that mean and why is that related to accessibility?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean right from the start of GOV.UK, we saw that central government alone was publishing pretty much everything as PDFs. And PDFs vary in quality and vary in accessibility as well. It is possible to make more accessible PDFs. But generally we’ve always said things should be webpages, content should be on webpages and in HTML. But, and in central government we’ve been moderately successful in that. There’s still a lot of PDFs being published but we’ve reduced that, and especially in services, they tend not to use PDFs anymore.

 

So I think legislation is a good time for, for all public sector organisations to reflect on that and see how they can change some of their processes and how they publish information.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So changing a mountain into a molehill.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. I mean we, I think you know there will always be some PDFs for certain reasons but the number of PDFs being published should go down.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So just thinking about stuff like that, as Chris says, changing processes. Is there a reason why we have to have this as a PDF format, why can’t it be HTML? I mean it, the campaign, it, it was the same you know. 

 

How do we make the supporter pack in HTML, it doesn’t look as pretty, which for creative people might be something, like a bone of contention, but ultimately we want people to be able to use it. So creating things and making things available in different formats if you have to have a PDF, is the right thing to do. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah and I think that’s sort of interesting as well with the creative side of things. Because obviously as government though you need to make it’s as accessible as possible and I think GOV.UK has won design awards so it shows that like, accessibility doesn’t mean that like design goes out the window, not at all. Like I think it was Fast Company put us at the top 10 designs of the decades in the 2010s. So..

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah I mean even when we won the Design Museum's Design of the Year award.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

You know we were on, we were called boring.com the next day. But you know we have a lot of designers working here in GDS, and there is an awful lot of design built into it even though it may look a bit plainer than other websites. But that’s because we’re totally focussed on usability and accessibility.

 

Rianna Fry: 

There’s no point having a beautiful website if no-one can use it

 

Laura Stevens: 

I would just sort of, what I would like to sort of talk about is how accessible services help everyone. 

 

For instance we have GOV.UK content that’s now accessible via voice assistance. So I think there’s now more than 13,000 pieces of GOV.UK content that’s available via Google Home or Amazon Alexa. And why is that good for people, like why, why is that good having these sort of pieces anyone can access via voice?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean there’s a lot of people that can’t use a standard computer and a standard web browser. I mean and that, that ranges from having disabilities through to just not understanding how a computer works and not wanting to understand how a computer works.

 

So being able to access government information if not services yet, just through voice I think is, is really important.

 

Rianna Fry: 

I was just going to say, personally as well, so a, a relative of mine recently was unwell and lost his sight. And he has an Alexa and so although it was still a difficult transition for him, him still being able to access things as soon as he got home really helped. 

 

Laura Stevens:
Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

And I think you know like Chris said, not everyone wants to use a computer as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Or if you’re sort of busy and out and about, sort of that situational side of things, it just makes things more accessible and more available for people, which is great. It’s easier right?

 

Laura Stevens: 

Chris, you alluded to this earlier that the sort of regulations have changed since GDS begun. And while accessibility has always been part of GDS’ work, there are new regulations that have come in quite recently, and these regulations mean public sector organisations have a legal duty to make sure their websites and apps meet accessibility requirements. 

 

And can you tell me a bit about them and sort of, what the key dates are with that and…

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So this is a European-wide initiative that started in 2016. It’s now UK law. And any new websites that a public sector body makes, that's certainly in public, needs to be accessible now. And they should also publish something called an accessibility statement on their website that says how accessible they are and how to get in contact with them if you find any issues with them.

 

But then the big deadline is 23 September 2020, when all public sector websites, old and new, need to be accessible.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how is this related to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which I called WCAG, but is that the correct way of pronouncing…

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens: 

...that acronym? So yeah, the web--oh sorry.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So WCAG is a W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] standard about web content accessibility. And it’s been updated pretty recently to version 2.1. And the standard that the legislation and we require is something called double A. So there are 3, 3 levels of accessibility mentioned in the guidelines - A, double A and triple A. 

 

And double A means that there should not be any major blockers to anyone being able to use the website. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Will the regulations apply differently to different parts of the public sector, for instance central government or to schools or to healthcare? 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

There are some differences. The legislation makes some exemptions especially, there is partial exemptions for schools and nurseries. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Although the way it’s written, actually they’re not quite as exempt as you might think.

 

Laura Stevens: 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Because a lot of people are doing stuff online, and if the online is the only route to them that has to be accessible. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

But generally the exemptions are, are quite small. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

I think what’s really important as well is that, I mean it’s this is sort of easy, easier for me to say I guess because I work in an organisation that really cares about accessibility and already has accessibility built in to a lot of the ways of working. But I think for me it’s sort of helpful to think about this as an opportunity. So I think this creates a really good excuse to educate people about why that’s important and also now that there’s law behind this...

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

that feeds into the Equality Act, and I mean that’s really important. If you’re going to pay to build a website, or spend a load of your time creating content, then you want to make sure that people can access that content or access that, access that service.

 

Why, why would you want to try and get around that? Because all you’re doing is reducing the amount of people that can access it. So I think you know, although I understand that sometimes there are reasons for that like time. I think this is about behaviour change, and also education, helping people to understand that. If you’re, if you’re opening your service up, you’re reducing costs that may be elsewhere because you’re making your website more efficient and work for people so that they can self-serve.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so do you think that’s why having an accessibility statement is a really good thing? Because you know how you’re saying this is a way of creating behaviour change. By the process of going through and creating accessibility statement, which is this statement on the website that says, this is why our service is accessible. And it also has to say, if I’m right, this isn’t accessible but this is how we’re working.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Absolutely.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah because GOV.UK has an accessibility statement, doesn’t it?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. What we are trying to do is make sites accessible so pub--, so you know getting the information together and publishing an accessibility statement is a really good start to making sure that the website is accessible and remains as accessible as it changes. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

I was just going to say you know, I think that shows a commitment to making a change. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

I think it’s unrealistic to expect all websites overnight to be completely accessible, because some of this stuff involves a lot of legacy things.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And also PDFs, a lot of PDFs. But this, I, as I understand it, and I’m not an expert so Chris you might correct me on this, but that’s statements about saying you know, these areas aren’t right but this is our plan to fix them. And if you can’t access information here’s who you need to contact to get that. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes. And that's an important part, you have that contact.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Absolutely, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

A name or an email address that you can go forward to.

 

And this actually leads me nicely on, because this was, we chose accessibility in January because there was a loose news hook for the podcast that January is when enforcement and reporting will begin. And this is quite a big job to undertake so Chris could you kind of talk to me about this next bit of your role?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah so to make sure that people are taking the legislation seriously, in each country in Europe, so it’s not just the UK, there is a monitoring body set up. In the UK it was decided that GDS would host that. And that’s the team I’m setting up at the moment. 

 

So we have an obligation in, in the legislation as well. So we will be monitoring a number of public sector websites. It’s about...by 2023, it’ll be about 2,000 websites a year.

 

And what we do is most of that will be automated checking using automated accessibility checkers. But we know that that only covers 30 to 40% of accessibility issues and WCAG points. So we’ll be doing a bit of manual checking as well and, and for a certain amount of websites, we have to do a sort of fuller audit that’s more like a traditional accessibility audit.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And this is done on behalf of the Minister for Cabinet Office isn’t it?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So yeah, they’re the person that's mentioned in the legislation. And yes, we’ll be reporting to them about what we find.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when you go through these websites, how do you get back in touch with them, do you create an accessibility report, how does that work?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So, so what we’re going to do is from the testing that we do, we’ll write a report. We’ll send that to the public sector organisation and start a conversation with them really about do they understand the report, do they see the same issues that we’re seeing, and what they’re going to do to fix them.

 

And hopefully that’s a constructive conversation and we can provide technical support where needed.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, and would you also I guess point to some of the stuff on GOV.UK? There’s accessibility guidance there as well. Would you be using that?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah absolutely. I mean, I mean both, both the stuff that we publish for central government like the Design System and the Service Manual. But also you know we are looking also for resources around the W3C publish and things like training that, that are starting to happen that we can point people to so that you know, they, they can fix the issues as quickly as possible.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Say if a website has been found with accessibility issues, what would be a way of enforcing the findings of a report?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So we’re working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in England, Wales and Scotland, and for Northern Ireland it’s the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. They are actually doing the enforcing on accessibility because it, it, falls under the Equality Act, so they’ve been enforcing accessibility for, for a while. And so that’s their role.

 

However we will be enforcing whether they, the sites have accessibility statements or not because that’s an additional thing on top of the Equality Act.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So you’re gonna be very busy over the next year and onwards from there.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. I mean it’s never ending. Yes we’re recruiting at the moment - the Audit Team. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Are you giving a plug on the podcast if anyone’s listening and they want to apply?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Well we will, we, we’ll certainly have some roles opening over the next year.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how will you find this sample of websites, or do we not know this yet?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

We’ve spent quite a while coming up with a list of what is the public sector and what isn’t. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

And also what websites they have. There’s another team in GDS called the Domain Management Team, who have also been trying to look at what websites government runs, and what the public sector runs. And they’re more tasked with making sure that the domains remain secure and are being used properly. 

 

But you know this list hasn’t existed before. So we’ve also approached it, we’ve crea--we’ve gathered lots of open data that government publishes around public sector organisations. And we’re using that to create a sort of master list of the public sector that we will then sample against. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Rianna you actually mentioned this earlier, and I know you’ve joined GDS relatively recently in the summer of last year. And sometimes I think accessibility can be landed on a person, one person in an organisation, and that it can feel quite overwhelming when suddenly there are regulations that people need to, and they need to learn a lot of knowledge quite quickly, how did you find that when you joined and you were given the accessibility campaign to manage? When you had to learn all this information, what did you find that was helpful or how did you find that process?

 

Rianna Fry: 

Well I think I’ve been really lucky in that I was surrounded by experts at GDS.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And also there is so much information on GOV.UK. And I mean, that’s not a plug, it’s true. And so like I said before, Charlotte Downs for example, she, when she, when we started working on this together she did a load of research on different things.

 

Because I mean, even once you know it, even once you’ve been through some training on how to create an accessible document. When you’re knocking together a document, it’s really easy to forget. Like I said, it’s behaviour change. So I think it’s about checking in with other people and asking other people to just check over content.

 

You know I remember when I first started working on this project and I sent out a survey and I made an assumption that it was accessible and it wasn’t. And that was..

 

Laura Stevens: 

And it was a survey about accessibility?

 

Rianna Fry:

It was, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Oh, yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

I mean it was a steep learning curve. Thankfully it was only live for about 2 minutes before I noticed.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And me and Richard [Morton] then worked together on some stuff, but I think that’s what it’s about, it’s about asking people to check in. And you know things aren’t always going to be perfect but that’s why it helps to be part of communities so that you’ve kind of got constructive friends

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

that can give you constructive feedback on how you can improve what you're doing. So I think, yeah it’s about seeing what’s out there and speaking to people and asking people to, for feedback on what you’re doing. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I know we mentioned before the communities are very active, the blog posts are very active, but also so you’re running the campaign for accessibility, we’ve had 75,000 visits to the GOV.UK guidance since August 2019. And you’ve also created a campaigns pack, and is that for people, who who’s that for?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So that’s for supporters. So for us, as Chris said this is a massive job, there are so many organisations that need to know about this. And the people that are potentially responsible for managing a public sector website aren’t necessarily in digital roles. They’re not necessarily people that GDS are talking to or aware of. 

 

So if you think about things like GP surgeries for example, they fall into the remit of public sector. Now my GP surgery definitely doesn’t have a digital team. So the, the point of the supporter pack is to try and get especially central government teams onboard, their engagement and communications teams on board and talking to people about the regulations.

 

So we’re trying to make it easier by bringing that information into one place, which is all the point of the campaign page. So we’ve tried to break it down into 4 steps. So signposting people to guidance that will help them to understand whether or not they’re going to be impacted. Believe it or not, some people aren’t sure whether or not they’re classed as a public sector organisation.

 

Then secondly deciding how to check the accessibility of their websites. Then making a plan to fix any problems and lastly publishing an accessibility statement, which really summarises the findings and the plans to fix any issues. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you’re saying there that this is all in one place, where is that place?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So it’s on GOV.UK/accessibility-regulations.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So if, so if I’m from the public sector I can go there and just…

 

Rianna Fry:

Absolutely. Yeah, it’s an open web...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

...webpage. And I’m, I mean my information’s on the supporter pack so if there are any campaign people out there that want to talk to me, then I’m more than happy to share any additional resources that we’ve got, that we’re using internally and whatever else.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And do you have any sort of top tips, or from your work you’ve done in sort of starting this work on accessibility. Are there any sort of things where you’ve spoken to other organisations, you’ve been like oh that’s a good thing to share. Any best practice or anything like that?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean I think that, that it isn’t just all..it isn’t just a single thing that people need to do. You know we understand that people have websites and they might need to retrofit some accessibility onto that but it is really about changing processes. 

 

So especially when we talk to people like local authorities, the number of people that publish on the website is quite large and it’s educating them to know how to make good PDFs, how to write well, how to, how generally how accessibility of content works. And making sure there’s a process to make sure that that happens. That needs to be in place as much as actually fixing the website and the technical aspects of accessibility.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think education is really important. So I think what helps is to tell, help colleagues across organisations to understand why they need to do certain things. 

 

And I think it helps that people, people have an awareness of the Equality Act, and understand when something is law. So I think that helps and I would say to try and use that to, yeah really educate people and try and get people on board internally.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So as a closing segment I thought it might be nice to ask both of you if there’s something in particular that motivates you to work in accessibility, or if there’s something you’ve come across in your work that’s made a real impact on you, and sort of galvanised you to keep going on this.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean I think we, what we see is when we talk to users, and we talk to users all the time, is it gives people independence. People can do things for themselves, they can self-serve, they can see the content on GOV.UK. And it’s, it’s something that they’ve you know, moving digitally has actually changed people’s lives. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, I think I’d echo that you know. And it’s important that organisations know about the regulations. So supporting those really hard working digital colleagues that spend a load of time researching what, what works for users, and a load of time trying to tell other people how to, you know why PDFs shouldn’t be used. 

 

So I think for me, that’s really important. And also just you know that lightbulb, seeing that lightbulb moment of people going ‘oh god, yeah we really should be doing this and being able to signpost them to the tools to be able to kind of put it into action.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you to Rianna and thank you to Chris for coming on the podcast today. I hope you’ve enjoyed being on the GDS podcast, a first for both of you.

 

Chris Heathcote:

Yeah. Thanks for having us. 

 

Rianna Fry:

Yeah. Thanks for having us. And thank you for choosing accessibility to be your first podcast of the decade. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Well I do.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Not just the year, the decade! I mean it feels like it’s really significant. This is going to be a podcast that people remember. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so yeah, you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. 

 

So thank you both again, and goodbye!

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Bye.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Thanks!

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